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Brief Reviews

Otherwise

Eleanor Wilner

University of Chicago Press, $11.95

by David Gewanter

Victimized and suppressed by history, women are given new voice, presence, and power through the dramatic monologues and lyrics of Eleanor Wilner's Otherwise. That sentence could be written before reading Wilner's book, so assiduously have the back-cover blurbs prepared us.

Otherwise does fulfill its promise: Odysseus's sister speaks to us and "spoil[s] his story"; Jack is warned that the Beanstalk is Medusa's hair; Leda's handmaiden "learns to put on fable for disguise"; Amelia Earheart is our Icarus, a "woman who fell from the skies." Finding women left "off the map" of the past, Wilner holds them

suspended for a moment

like a figure just emerging

from a myth, wet with life

("Out of the Hellespont")

Some, like Antigone, represent "an intellect who can face down a tyrant with her tongue"; others tuck wisdom

into the recess

of her mind like a small explosive

in an envelope, that opening will detonate

and our neat order shatter

("Small Passage between Eons")

Here, as elsewhere, Wilner's fervor and imagery power us along stanzas sometimes weak in rhythm: the flat opening prepositions of the above lines, for example, drain power from the ends. In another poem, "The Love of What Is Not," Wilner brilliantly casts a parade balloon as a "huge fetus" floating above city hall, its "string cut" "as if the city wore/its unborn soul outside itself." Yet the ravaged city is sketched in fairly conventional terms:

blank walls of brick, shining

towers of steel and glass, gutters

running with waste, the living

dead. . . .

Otherwise may be limited in another sense by convention „ that is, by its "preposition." For Wilner operates in a region of poetry „ new voices, myths, and histories for women „ already charted by Louise Glłck, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, Pamela White Hadas, and, perhaps most notably, Adrienne Rich. Wilner's new work participates less in an iconoclastic revolt than it follows the new convention. The back-cover testimonials, and the biographical note hailing Wilner's books "for their feminist revisions of Western myth and biblical tradition" serve to "preposition " our response. The point here is not to fault Wilner for writing the many shrewd and moving poems of Otherwise, but to note that today's poetry readership has become ever more divided into small camps, whose tastes and assumptions can be gauged and met.

Still unfed by prepositioned poetry, though, is our taste for surprise and subtlety beyond our assumptions. Rich offered such discoveries in "Diving into the Wreck," whose speaker claims "I am she" and "I am he," where we search

the ribs of the disaster

curving their assertion

among the tentative haunters.

Beyond (or behind) "haunters" lurks the word "hunters." Rich signals this by rhyming "curving" and "assertion," making "among" an overture to "hunters." Through this double-sensed word, Rich shows how the mind can both interrogate and inhabit the past.

The assertions of Otherwise do not curve so well; thus, the book may not touch the mysterious "wrecked harbors" of "history's debris" as Rich did in her "Wreck," being too engaged in finding what's "wise" in the "Other." But Wilner wants to teach us a new way of reading history, so that Lear carrying Cordelia is seen as "Reverse piňta,/a motherless world."

The bounty of her teaching lies not so much in finding written history as the "wrong door,/the one marked Sins of the Fathers," but in sensing new human possibilities behind it. Thus, a boy named Noah represents a "small steward of the future, untroubled/by the freight his name carries." Perhaps this boy will grow conscious of gender, but not feel subject to history.

History, though, carries a doom that both precedes and nullifies our thoughts „it treats us with equal injustice. What Wilner asks of us is that, within this doom, we treat each other justly. Otherwise is most surprising, then, when it targets the sins of women, as it does in "Admonition." Here, as Wilner warns that nurturing women can also destroy, we recognize the power of Otherwise to revise feminism.

Admonition

You are

their sister. Nevertheless

they accuse you of the worst.

When you defend yourself

they call you

defensive. Beware„

you who traffic with

the wet nurses

of history, those iron nipples,

that acid drink,

pure and deadly.

An Untold Tale

Jonathan Strong

Zoland Books, $19.95

by Maxine Rodburg

"But what is a tale and where does it spring from?" asks the narrator of Jonathan Strong's intriguing new novel, An Untold Tale, during one of his rare direct appearances. "We tell our own poor tales our own small ways," he says, including himself in both the "we" of the teller and the "we" of the reader „ a device that seems entirely fitting. For although he has been an active character in the story that he mostly narrates in a collective voice, in the end he is no closer to omniscience than the other denizens of Otto Pond who, by turns, try their own telling of this elusive story.

One by one, everbody struggles to figure out Sam Lara, the sexually magnetic prodigal son who returns to the northern village decades after leaving it. By pondering the gaps in the hypnotic Sam's biography, they're filling in the story of their own lives „ what they remember, what they've forgotten, what they dream and what they fear: what, and whom, they most desire. But some things, chiefly memory and sexuality, are immutable, subject to no easy filing system that banks on linear chronology, specific dates, discrete beginnings that causally connect to logical middles and neat endings.

This story really starts much sooner than the book does. Everything in present action revolves around unspoken secrets that took place long ago, particularly the one between Sam and Otis Cable, the covert narrator who finally claims ownership of this story. "Mine is the sole case I can plead," Otis slyly tells us at the end. "Doesn't it always depend on the tale spinner? Take the teller from the story and what do you have but rootless formulation?"

You have something like a folk tale, something like an opera, something like omniscience, but post-modern, with a twist „ a narrative that strives to be simultaneously authorless and multi-voiced. Because when it comes to Sam Lara, everyone in Otto Pond has fantasies and anecdotes about him, musings and theories and elaborate yet inexpressible ideas. And, in this small intense place, whatever and whoever acts upon one person inevitably acts upon the other, until the entire town is engulfed in a kind of heaving, lyrical obsession. These are people capable of friendship and compassion, even grace and tolerance. (It's a village in New Hampshire, land of "Live Free Or Die.") And yet, Otto Pond has always been a place of deep fragility, resting as it does upon a bedrock covenant to stay silent about what matters most.

Into all of this Sam Lara has brought someone beguiling and exotic, known only as Khaled, who appears to be a sylvan lover, servant, friend: a mystery man who forces to the civic surface the sexual subtext that has been latent all these years. Sam and Khaled move about staid Otto Pond like rustlers in the night, by turns exciting interest, rekindling buried passions, provoking anger and resistance. The tightly woven social fabric inevitably unravels. What really happened, way back when? What is really happening now? The mysterious Khaled might have a clue; he might even know. But unlike Sheherezade, who also had "a thousand and one stories," Khaled "ain't telling 'em." And so the citizens of Otto Pond talk and talk and talk. Despite (or possibly because of) the novel's lush prose style, we hear them at what seems to be a psychically great distance. Otis Cable seeks to submerge himself by granting narrative property rights to many others, but his own imagination limits him „ he relies heavily on exposition, on telling, rather than on showing what he cannot see (or what the novel seeks to suggest cannot be seen). This raises crucial questions about the very nature of narration. "By this point, you have come to trust me or you haven't, or perhaps I have eluded you. I will tell you I haven't lied, but maybe it's only that I haven't always known where I've been lying to myself or noticed what I've chosen not to tell."

For chapter after chapter, this evanescent story nears our comprehension, then circles off again, grounding us more in the endless nuances and conjectures that the townspeople hungrily examine than in a traditional plot. Ultimately we feel like Joanie, Otis Cable's spiritual sister until Sam Lara's return. Like everybody else in Otto Pond, Joanie knows that Otis has another self to which she has intuitive but limited access, a sexual life that lately he can chiefly satisfy in dark places off the highway. But ". . . even when she heard tell of his lost loves, Joanie wasn't sure what he'd lived through and what he'd merely dreamed." That's true of everybody in Otto Pond, so that Sam Lara's inchoate power increases exponentially even as his dreams, his desires continue to evade those whom he attracts. Eventually, the past becomes his present, or rather undergoes a violent reincarnation, shedding a bit of light on what happened then and some on what happens now „ yet leaving much (perhaps that which is most crucial) in permanent, deep shadow.

In the hands of someone from another century, a century whose inhabitants believed in God „ someone, say, like Tolstoy „ narrative omniscience underscored the certainty of sacred order. That's not the century we live in now „ post-Holocaust, post- Hiroshima, post-Chernobyl. What we take away from Jonathan Strong's shimmering new novel is a renewed appreciation of how much of human motivation and behavior never can be understood or even known, particularly in matters of the heart: ". . . at the very core of love „ for another, from another „ resided a necessary secret still point, an eyelet, an emptiness almost, a blank space not to be filled, a tale left untold."

A Child Is Not A Knife

GĖran Sonnevi

(Translated and Edited by Rika Lesser)

Princeton University Press, $24.95 (cloth); $9.95 (paper)

by Don Share

Moses complained to the Lord that because he stuttered, he could not be eloquent; the Lord was wise enough not to settle for this sophistry, and so Moses became a mouth for both God himself and his own people. The Swedish poet, GĖran Sonnevi, stutters when he speaks; I recently heard a tape of him reading his poetry, and can testify to the truth of translator Rika Lesser's assertion that: "Read is not the right word, neither is intone or incant" „ there is "no touch of melodrama, nothing grandiose or even grand in his reading, his fluent, singing voice." Yet both in the Swedish original and in Lesser's extraordinary translations, this poet's words leap like heartbeats across the page. Sonnevi has paradoxically created a kind of poetics, an inward language of perfect eloquence from the very disruption of his own speech:

I, hacked to pieces,

speak››Speak

piecemeal too

so that you

will only partly understand me . . .

In the silences

when you do not hear me

If you don't hear me there

you have not

heard me

Sonnevi, well-known in Sweden for his dozen books of poetry, and also for his translations into Swedish of such difficult poets as Ezra Pound and Paul Célan, is obviously no stranger to what Lesser calls poems that "speak to the possibilities that arise when people try to communicate."

It is

as if I had no language

and as if I had

nothing to say

in that language

And to know at the same time

it is imperative that we speak

with each other

if we are not to die.

That snippet, with its echo (to the English ear) of Auden's "September 1, 1939," hints that Sonnevi's concerns about breaching silences have wide implications. In fact, Lesser tells us, Sonnevi has become a political conscience for his nation; his poems, like Auden's, often take dark views of history. In the prescient and inconsolable title poem, for instance, Sonnevi hears the recurring names of "death's dominions":

. . . Guatemala, 1954

Guatemala, 1983 Honduras Nicaragua, the same year

El Salvador, 1932 Now we're led

back four hundred years The numbers of dead

are so high now that it is not even

possible to implement exploitation

at full capacity The names of the empire change

Our names change The child's wing of genocide

grazing your cheek In an ultimate caress

A child is not a knife . . .

Sonnevi claims that "Every/word carries/the whole universe"; as the Swedish writer, GĖran TunstrĖm, observes, Sonnevi's work contains "a swarm" of political and scientific terms. Yet, remarkably, this poetry is neither limited to nor limited by its absorption in language and politics. Lesser provides, in her introduction, a list of "key images": birds, the child, crystals, the dance, the dead, eyes, hell and paradise, the labyrinth, mathematics, the mother, the rose, the sea, the smile, gyres or vortices, whiteness „ the effect is, as TunstrĖm puts it, that of a single long poem, and Lesser's selection impressively conveys the growing strategies and structures of his verse. Her notes to the poems „ about matters ranging from night-scented orchids to the Norse Pantheon „ are further evidence of Sonnevi's breathtaking scope.

From the political and the linguistic to the erotic, Sonnevi's poems are simply stunning. He uses space and shifts in duration the way Dickinson used dashes and slant-rhyme, as a means of shaping the language of verse around particles of the eternal. This poetry, like Dickinson's, like Whitman's, argues that unfinished language is finished in infinity; that every word, like every human being, carries the whole universe, and along with it, crucial questions about existence and annihilation:

I said to you,

I am not human

And you

looked at me

and said, no

perhaps you

are not

Then I began to vanish

dissolving from within

until not even

my shell remained

Not even

my skin, the human

shell

And you touched me

as if I

did not exist

And inside,

inside me

was

night streaming, streaming night

whirling

and starless Not

a single

human star

When I touched you

with my fingers of night

you, too, dissolved

you were

water

between my fingers

One can never predict what form the language of ecstasy may take. Sonnevi's spatial style, which he calls a "topological sensibility," is outward-seeking and attentive: "Words have no limits, thus/they are no longer words." As in Whitman, the pronouns are tantalizingly ambiguous:

There's nothing but

you, and you

Only when you become explicit,

when you

question me, and I

answer, when there's

an exchange Only then is there language

only then are we human

Berryman, writing about Whitman, proposes a simple theory of poetry: the poet has a passionate sense of identification „ he fills with experiences, and a valve opens: "It is as humble as, and identical with, Keats's view of the poet as having no existence, but being 'forever in, for, and filling' other things." And so, like Moses on the threshold of a promised land, the "I" of poetry is, as Berryman puts it, gradually expanded and filled with meaning; "not until near the end of the poem is the 'I' complete „ and then it flees." From this almost invisible place, "A human cry sounds, resounds/stretches/over the sea surface/out toward/the horizon's ragged edges." Indeed, Lesser's selection ends with a passage as moving as the dialogue between the solitary boy and the mockingbird in "Out Of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking":

. . . as if deep inside my head,

as if I were hearing a faint echo, of the high, high-pitched sound

I once heard

As if we inhabited different folds

of the infinite architecture of

heaven Its spaces

of infinitely many dimensions, still

connected If only with another

Lesser has given us more than an anthology of Sonnevi's work: A Child Is Not a Knife stands on its own as one of the most surprising and powerful books of poetry in recent memory.

Stained Glass

Rosanna Warren

W.W. Norton & Co., $17.95

by Sue Standing

Rosanna Warren must be one of the most structurally elegant and visually perceptive contemporary poets around. To paraphrase Joseph Addison on Milton, "Whatever her pen describes I more than see." Whether she is writing in slant-rhymed quatrains, terza rima, sonnets, a Sidney-esque sestina, or impeccably-lineated free verse, Warren's quick poetic eye converts both the invisible world and the inscape of passion and grief into the charged corporeality of words. In her second full-length book, Stained Glass, winner of the Lamont Poetry Selection, Warren enlarges on some of the themes and concerns of her earlier poems: the reconstruction of the ancient past by means of fragments of art or language or landscape through which a culture can be entered; a figuring of the more immediate past in the vein of pastoral elegy; and the difficulties, dangers, and pleasures of the present „ newspapers and neighbors, nurture and nature. The act of cultural reconstruction can be seen in poems such as "Eskimo Widow":

She sees nothing, her eyes are closed.

I see her lying face down, cheek smooth

on rocks worn smooth by tides.

I hear what she hears: kayaks

stitching wave folds,

rustle and slap. I see, she doesn't,

the surprised mouth each paddle scoops

in water, for the autumn migration.

Here, as in other poems such as "Child Model," Warren conflates the point of view of the subject with the speaker's own perceptions.

Warren's meditations and mediations frequently take as their starting point a painting, sculpture, or photograph. Ekphrasis isn't exactly a dying art „ from Homer's description of the Shield of Achilles to Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts," not to mention the plethora of poems on Hopper paintings, it has proved its durability and pliability „ but it isn't the genre flavor-of-the-day, either. Warren handles the ekphrastic mode with particular adeptness. In Stained Glass, several poems, such as "Child Model," "Courtly Love," "Girl By Minoan Wall," and "An Old Cubist," originate from the contemplation of an actual or an imagined photograph or painting. In Warren's previous collection, Each Leaf Shines Separate (Norton, 1984), many of the poems are also concerned with paintings or the act of painting, as in these exquisite lines from "Painting a Madonna":

››If he has been so careful

in drawing the jointure of wrist and

still child-like hand

››it is because

he himself does not quite believe

››in the spirit.

The armature and the musculature of Rosanna Warren's poetry is strong, and it's not surprising to learn that Warren trained as a painter herself. One of her tutelary spirits is the French poet and painter Max Jacob, who died in the Nazi concentration camp at Drancy in 1944. Warren is currently writing a biography of Jacob. In Each Leaf Shines Separate, two poems were dedicated to him, "To Max Jacob" and "Max Jacob at Saint Beno”t." In Stained Glass, Warren translates, beautifully, three of Jacob's poems „ "Agonies and More," "Infernal Vision in the Form of a Madrigal," and "Christ at the Movies" „ as well as two poems by Pierre Reverdy. She also includes two tributes to teacher-poets through the vehicle of Alcman, the 7th-century b.c. Greek lyric poet, said to be the inventor of love songs. Warren's grounding in classical literature, her skill as a translator, her background in visual arts, all combine in Stained Glass to create a collection in which the mind is satisfied by her learning and use of tradition, the ear pleasured by skillful metrics, and the eye stimulated by a rich palette of imagery. Note, for example, the slant rhymes and the precision of word choice in these lines from "Courtly Love":

Blank room, blank window, and his back bared

to us in a ganglion of shadow, hers

to him: love is a questing blade

of light across floorboards charred

by its progress.

Occasionally, when Warren cuts loose from classical modes and forms, the results can be uneven, if not downright unsettling. "Pornography," "Tannin," and "Necrophiliac" all seem to me to be experiments in tone and diction that don't quite come off, as in these lines from "Necrophiliac":

...So help

me God to another dollop of death,

come on strong with the gravy and black-eyed peas,

slop it all in the transcendental stew....

"Song," on the other hand, closely following "Necrophiliac" in the fourth and final section of the book, is one of several stunning elegies for her father. This poem brings together many of Warren's characteristic strategies:

I shall meet you nowhere, in no transfigured hour.

On soft, matted soil

blueberry bushes crawl,

each separate berry a small, hot globe of tinctured sun.

Crushed on the tongue

it releases a pang

of flesh. Tender flesh, slipped from its skin,

preserves its blue heat

down my throat.

The understated emotion is brought out through the slant rhymes, deft line breaks, and the juxtaposition of soul and soil, intangible and tangible. Warren herself has written elsewhere of "Song" (in The Best American Poetry 1991, where the poem was anthologized), "Grief is unoriginal; it is also in each case savagely private and felt to be unique. By invoking poetic conventions of mourning and the community of loss evinced in a small country graveyard, I tried to approach, obliquely, the primitive shock of loss, the primitive and ritual urge toward preservation of the lost."

This "ritual urge toward preservation of the lost" inhabits nearly all Warren's work, including "The Broken Pot," a meditation dedicated to her mother; "Umbilical," about mother-daughter ties; and the extraordinary final poem of the book, "The Twelfth Day," with its Homeric locus and classical-sized grief. The powerful, convulsive phrases of this poem could serve as Warren's own ars poetica:

This is Ancient

Poetry››››It's supposed

to repeat

The living mangle the dead

after they mangle the living

It's formulaic

That's how we love››››It's called

compulsion››››Poetry can't

help itself›

Originally published in the December 1993/ January 1994 issue of Boston Review



Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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