biography of water
The Word Works, $10 (paper)
Unlike much recent poetry and many if not most first collections, Carrie Bennett’s biography of water, winner of the 2004 Washington Prize, reads like a book that needed to be written, driven by feeling as much as by idea, guided by purpose and personal vision instead of by guesswork, ambition, or frivolity. Fragmented but always lyrical, the book is at once experimental in form and timeless in rhythm and imagery: birds, trees, air, windows, doors, body parts, and (of course) water abound. The first poem opens with an image of brokenness: “you roll over and break (thus is the thinness of bone).” Something has gone terribly wrong in the world and in the human experience: “thin is the stem that bends in no breeze you wouldn’t make it / in this weather with waves up to here and / a water always wanting more / of your body than you want to give.” Without being explicitly narrative in form, the book, over the course of its seven long-poem sequences, is an attempt to understand and salve an injury that remains forever unnamed, abstract: “o twisted piece / of iron: this is my body // so disjointed.” The human body is more than 70 percent water, and the biography of water explores—with an authority and grace uncommon among Bennett’s peers—the shared ground between the external and the internal, the interrelatedness of body and landscape, and the interdependence of the individual and the community. By the book’s end, Bennett arrives at the prospect of pure existence, the possibility of translucence between language and the spaces between language, between being and seeing, subject and object: “the object will appear and usually with color an extension / of stem and fiber // but not yet but waiting won’t but it will be one morning one / look out the window one sudden shift of view and there it / will be as though it always was.”
—Nadia Herman Colburn
Journey to the Lost City
Ausable Press, $14 (paper)
“Dreaming is after all a kind of thinking,” Jonathan Aaron writes in this new volume, his third in almost 25 years, and it’s hard to imagine a more succinct statement of his poetic method. Aaron has always used the peculiar instability of poems to his advantage: he builds tension from a poem’s ability to slip on no more than a phrase from the real to the symbolic, from the hypothetical to the unalterable. As he writes in “Black Ice,” “You never see it. / You only know it by the weightlessness you feel / as the scenery picks up speed or starts to spin.” Of course, if this swerving into the uncanny grows habitual, it can become the equivalent of dry ice in a music video: mystery deflates to camp. Some of these poems do feel attenuated and vague, like a friend’s dream recounted over coffee the next morning. But on the whole Aaron carefully controls the book’s themes, and his strange, free-floating moods often acquire real gravity, especially when episodes from World War II, the Middle Ages, the classical world, and film noir anchor the more ambiguous passages. Some of the wittiest poems evoke the golden age of Hollywood, another kind of non-reality, when “Republic Pictures’ version of the Eiffel Tower / constantly emitted little bolts of lightning,” and “Nostalgia was no more / than somebody else’s chronic fear of mice.” Many of the poems take place by the ocean or convey the “kind of dread, ready for wreck and erasure,” that the sea inspires, and this too seems appropriate to a collection that explores the seam between solid reality and the drift of dreams. For Aaron, the ocean is “a restless waste empty of everything / but its own incessant, ravenous expectancy.” In this book he makes one feel that such menace—ultimately, the reality of death—is pervasive, to be found on the underside of most ordinary experiences, memories, and histories.
Lug Your Careless Body
Out of the Careful Dusk
Joshua Marie Wilkinson
University of Iowa Press, $16 (paper)
Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s second book, Lug Your Careless Body Out of the Careful Dusk: a poem in fragments, delivers, in part, what its subtitle promises. This is indeed a book of fragments, many of them lovely, arresting, mysterious: “Sad luck of coins / in the dryer. Church songs / or hollering / behind the conversation / on the phone.” However, the subtitle also implies that these fragments will somehow cohere into a satisfying poem, either by suggesting the completeness they once partook of or else by thematizing or theorizing their brokenness. Lug Your Careless Body fails to achieve this. Fragmentation can be used to brilliant effect when pursued with rigor and purpose, rewarding readers for their efforts to contend with the gaps and fracture; Emily Rosko accomplishes as much in Raw Goods Inventory, which shared the 2005 Iowa Poetry Prize with Lug Your Careless Body. But Wilkinson’s book proceeds from fragment to fragment heedlessly, with the sense that any of its passages could be moved around or removed at random with no appreciable damage to the aggregate, whose apparent aim is merely an “overall effect.” This is a book of riffs—frequent mentions of telephones, light, little boys, moths, horses, cities, and ladders—that might be thought of generously as image systems or less generously as tics. When Wilkinson writes, “You took your apricot dress to the drycleaners / & left it forever,” the reader is presented with a flash of narrative with real affective potential, but very little else in the text supports the reader’s impulse to regard it as such, and Wilkinson has already moved on. One fragment suggests that “each story / depends on the part / the teller forgets.” As a poet and a storyteller, Wilkinson seems to have forgotten too much. As a result, his book—which could have been far greater than the sum of its parts—is entirely too forgettable.
Ahsahta Press, $16 (paper)
Brian Henry’s fourth book needs to be experienced as a whole. Opening it at random and sampling a few pages might give the reader a sense of the book’s tone (the haunted eloquence of its writing, the even keel of each line) as well as its preliminary situation (dying of the plague, a man wonders back on his life, its disturbances and violations). But a partial reading could not fully appreciate the book’s most pivotal fact: how the narrative ground of the 40 “Quarantine” poems is overturned by a completely different principle of composition in the appendix’s series of 40 “mirroring” poems entitled “Contagion.” As a result, what at first appears to be the book’s entire calling (“I will die silent I will tell my story as I die”) is only halfway to the point. This half is articulated with a surreal calm (“Fire brought to the water by flesh / for days the river burned / birds rode the bodies flapping”), each one-page poem drafted in the spirit of exhalation (rather than inspiration) from a place beyond pain (“but now there is a softness / to the feeling a body is washing / away falling into the grass beneath it”). But in the moment between the closure of the narrative portion and the opening of the “cryptic” appendix, a profound change has occurred: the fragments one now examines appear to be the exhumed “remains,” the mysterious petrifaction, of lines just previously encountered in the first section. What had once been made of breath, itself so spontaneous, now is reversed into artifact. This is the exquisitely executed impact of Quarantine’s concept: through the contrast between antipodal poetic techniques, one experiences composition and decomposition as central to writing’s paradox: the life (as expression) and death (into material) of the writer.
House of Anansi Press, $13.95 (paper)
“If only the body / could make up its mind,” Suzanne Buffam writes in her elegant debut, Past Imperfect. This sort of wry and watchful, bodied consciousness haunts the collection. It questions our sense of ourselves as thinking and feeling beings inhabiting a world overwhelmed by the inevitability of both loss and grace. Playful self-inquiry is often the mode. Buffam’s speakers constantly search themselves for strange populations, gentle metamorphoses: “There you are checking your ankles for wings,” or, “In the waves, my skirt rose up and made of me / a shape I couldn’t take on shore or keep.” This wonder represents the speaker’s searching attentiveness, but it is more than a mere instance of being alert to a moment of loneliness or delight. Rather, Buffam appears interested in the distinction between being absorbed by loneliness and the clarity of feeling that comes from looking upon oneself at a distance as a solitary being, as one thing among many. Consider the way in which birds remind the bard not that she is feeling something, but that they are the very texture of her feeling in the prose poem “Please Take Back the Sparrows”: “They are not sorry. They are not singing. Many they are one they are never not somewhere. They are not not singing. They are not slack . . . They scatter thinking. They are not asking or telling they are scattering thinking they are shivering. They are awake or they are shivering.” For her subject she zeroes in on the ways in which her inwardness can take form and meaning in the world, and that inwardness is treated with a cautious pleasure: “My voice has been described as nondescript, yet I continue to use it . . . I call to hear the sound of my own voice.” Though Buffam’s speaker regretfully admits in one poem, “There is how I feel, and there is this hurtling surface. It is impossible to say something true for all time about either,” this sort of vigilant deliberation is what makes for the book’s charged and intimate music.