This grouping of books comprises Stacy Doris's second book of poems
and two debut collections—those of Jennifer Clarvoe and Joanna
Klink. Doris, from her collaborative creation of a multi-media comic
book (Mop Factory Incident) to her French biography of "the world's
most perfect man" (La vie de Chester Steven Wiener écrite par
sa femme), seems to tackle new ground with each project.
Clarvoe and Klink have begun more straightforwardly, perhaps, than Doris
did with her first collection, Kildare, but both debuts have
the surprises certain to be found in intelligent, innovative poetry.
Charting a passage through these three books could begin at the (literal)
beginning with Joanna Klink's poem "Creatio ex Nihilo": "When the world
began there were waters," the speaker tells us, and we learn that humankind's
rise necessitates the loss and/or destruction of former evolutionary
incarnations. This is paralleled by the subsequent life on land, when
the human self develops at the expense of former lives and selves. Jennifer
Clarvoe then leads us "leisurely, leisurely on sea-legs" into the middle-ground
of the self's existence, where past must be sorted from present and,
more importantly, the present self must glean what it can from the past
and go on. The trio comes full-circle in Stacy Doris's Paramour
with the final ambiguous "grunt" of her character named "Thus"; the
guttural noise simultaneously heralds a sated ending and the barely
verbalized aggression of a new beginning. The would-be line of evolution
twists, turns, and circles back to the beginning and beyond, returning
us, perhaps, to Klink's knowledge that, "before the waters there were
waters," and leaving us in an unknown but startlingly familiar place.
All three books chart the processes of evolution, and all three deftly
convolute any sense of a streamlined progression, with a fluidity of
language and construction that mirrors the fluidity of life itself.
The beginning of Joanna Klink's They Are Sleeping lands us in
the murky Ur-sea, in an atmosphere of "something other than terror,
shackled, floating." But the next poem, "Terre à Terre," presents
us with terror itself; the water drops away as "darkness drops inside
their throats," and the reward for this loss is admittance, not into
light, but into darkest existence, "that unlit we might occur." This
is not even a promise of existence, but the possibility of an
occurrence, leaving the reader to question the value of such
an exchange. And this exchange, the feasibility of it, the sanity of
it, informs the rest of the book as it moves into modern urban settings,
and the evolution in question becomes that of the self, centering on
the self's fraught relations to itself and others in the early 21st
Klink's forte, in both language- and image-making, is her ability to
mingle elements from the murky lost world with those of the present
day. In "Terre à Terre," for example, with its atmosphere of primordial
unease, we find a piano, "cold museum light," and "brides … breathing
in their rooms." Somehow Klink has made the museum a landmark of civilization,
and the nameless and eerily grouped brides belong in this space;
in fact, they attest to the co-existence of both worlds at once: the
primitive and the civilized yoked together, the one invading the other's
seemingly cordoned-off area of space and time.
Similarly, the past and present echo one another throughout the progress
of poems—the nameless "something other than terror" in "Creatio
ex Nihilo" is recalled by the proclamation, "All terror to the ones
who live alone" in "Landscape Without Particulars":
Isn't it grand
when they smile, look away. Stand astonished, stand apart.
Exit into the shouts and smart cars. All poverty to the ones
who exit like this. (Exit! Like this!) Theinhabitants
are restless. They struggle in their slenderinteriors.
The terror of the mindless schools of organisms in the earliest sea
becomes inseparable from (or at least concordant with) the very conscious,
highly developed anxiety of individuals living in the modern city. Klink
makes the reader question what has changed from the unspecified masses
of the primitive world to the "bright and disposable" urban inhabitants
who "mull through the streets." The only answer she poses may be the
final line of the book: "Walking man, wherever you are, we're almost
home." In keeping with what has come before it, this statement encompasses
both comfort and uncertainty, the un-absolute promise of a destination
nearly reached. And the tacit acceptance/acknowledgment of the ambivalence
of evolution (large and small)—yes, there is progress made, but
"the birds of change [open] whatever they feel." What is charted here,
as in Doris's and Clarvoe's books, is not a direct and simple line of
apes-to-man (in any sense), but a circular process, which loses ground
even on gaining it and gains ground even on losing it.
Perhaps the most striking physical element of the work that reflects
this cyclical "progress" is Klink's use of rhythm and repetition, her
attention to the circling of language itself. In "Summer Elegy," "Theresa"
reappears as "Street Theresa," "People Theresa," and "The coma Theresa,"
yet she remains the same Theresa even as she undergoes linguistic transformations.
The other cyclical pattern is found in the movement of time and weather
in this poem—night settles in, "rain presses cement down," preparation
is made for the onset of sunlight. There is movement, but the invocation
of "coma Theresa" underlies the entire shifting of climate with a suffocating
stasis. Conversely, the climatic shifts underlie the stasis and bring
hope of change; these poems never forgo the chance of breaking free
and walking the elusive "straight line." In the series of poems titled
"Aubade" the same balancing of hope and despair is evident. Here "we
live poorly, driven from house to house," but then there is "an open
field." Similarly, another "Aubade" asks, "Whose world which only indicates
terror?" and the reply comes, "But we are here." These songs greeting
the dawn are lamentations and celebrations all at once, and they epitomize
the distinctive harmony that Klink has maintained in balancing extremes
throughout this striking debut.
Jennifer Clarvoe's vision of progression, tied up with childhood memories
and marked by the "fall" into adulthood, is highly personalized. The
early poems of Invisible Tender serve as close studies of childhood
events; their glance is backward, but the past is reclaimed in new form,
allowing forward movement. These poems also acknowledge loss (of memory,
of family ties, etc.), and in the course of each poem these losses are
transformed into gifts, albeit imperfect ones. In "2217 Platenstrasse,"
the speaker strains to recapture the details of a place, among which
is a "silver street, flat street, it must have been one or the other,
or both at different times." Instead of finding an answer to the question,
"How do we hold them?" instead of finding an equation for the perfect
rediscovery of this place, she gives us the repetition and gradual reinvention
of the street in the final line, "like this silver like rain on the
street, flat like rain." First, she allows the choices of streets to
co-exist, and then at the close of the poem she causes them to morph
into the presence of silver in the present (this silver), like
coins in the speaker's palm. The street may be lost, childhood may be
gone, and memory may be unreliable, but some part of all those has been
rescued and can be cherished, if only as lines of poetry, as words.
What is evident in this system of progress is the exchange that mustoccur—the
losses for gains, the specific street for silver in the hand. The poems
in the book's second section ("Songs of Multiplication and Division,"
recalling Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience") confront the
fall into adulthood and experience that mirror the original Fall. The
section's title poem, an incantatory piece, again acknowledges the weight
of exchange, although the poem feels buoyant and light; it is a kind
of waking song for the narrator's yet-unborn baby. This feeling is created
by the deft use of circling language:
The sun says your body is milk, your baby swims.
The pine says your baby milks your swimming body.
The mole says swim with your baby in the milky way, one milky body.
But violence has a place in this peaceful scene as well—as the
various animals around the house beckon to the baby to "come eat! come
be!" they cause destruction. The raccoon smashes the bird feeder "like
a cookie jar for seeds," and the cat "sleuths through the snow to bring
me the shrew with blood on her head." The baby will enter into life,
but at the cost of also joining in the cycle of destruction. Clarvoe
nimbly balances both elements without passing a simplified judgment,
and the result is a lullaby as darkly tinged as "Rock-A-Bye Baby" itself.
Whereas the earlier poems in the book, like "2217 Platenstrasse," focus
on the struggle to recall and cull from loss some means of going forward,
even if in altered form, the final poems have arrived at a peaceful,
almost satisfied, plateau. "Landscape Lit By An Apricot" embraces the
whole scope of the book, including sorrow and loss, and declares it
ripe and good. Without neglecting or omitting the past, the narrator
returns always to the present, "to be held to earth by hunger, sharing
hunger, now." She finds that "no fruit shows brown on the tree, and
none lies bruised, none rots on the velvet lawn." Somehow, despite the
violence of the fall (literal and symbolic), the "invisible tender"
protects the fruit in the end, and sees that "the bright globes keep
filling up with light." The narrator has found the ability to arrive
somewhere—here, now—through poetry.
However, Clarvoe has chosen to end the collection with a poem that
questions the authority of poetry. She pokes fun at her audacity in
writing a poem, "as if an act of will … a simple, repeating gesture
like a rhyme … could marry joy, could really hold and last." This
self-deprecating gesture is akin to the narrator leaning down to whisper
in our ear, "you know, everything I said before this was a lie—or
a failure, at least." Clarvoe's apology is both sincere and tongue-in-cheek.
She has obviously succeeded in making things hold and last via poetry,
but she also concedes (and rightly so) that it is arrogant and foolish
to believe that anything as flimsy as language can hold the slippery
past. Finally, this dismissive gesture helps us return to "Landscape
Lit by an Apricot" and to the moment purely, successfully preserved
in poetry, without concern for how it will weather with time. This is
the fulcrum upon which the book's worries and concerns are gracefully
balanced, with the lightest touch.
What serves as the balancing point for Stacy Doris's Paramour?
On first glance, everything about the book is perfectly balanced, symmetrical—structurally,
it folds in the center (at "Center Folds"), with section corresponding
neatly to section, such as "Boy Book (Songs)" to "Girl Book (Warnings)."
Thematically, the male vision of sex and love is answered by the female's;
the voices of the opposite sexes call and respond. On moving beyond
a superficial reading, however, the boundaries Doris has carefully drawn
for us disintegrate, causing a chaos she herself prepares us for in
The book is … a precious glass-work box … and at the
same time a reflection of the current technological cultural unconscious'
restructuring of space, a conception of the physical world in which
locations and identities shift with radical illogic; … something
like a Netscape merry-go-round, it is at the same time built to hinge
open at the center like a lady's compact mirror, with both sides reflecting.
Here Doris lays bare the book's patterns and dalliances in form more
eloquently than any long-winded explication could. In short, she has
created a complex crystalline structure to house the ever-changing,
ever-moving fluid of the book's substance. This liquid stuff pulses
through literary forms—the ballad, the rondeau, the prose poem,
the dramatic dialogue. In its wake it leaves reinvention—of the
forms themselves, and of the subject she has chosen as the focus of
the book: love. And integral to the study of love is the eternal love/war
between the sexes, which she also re-examines and redefines. But how
can two "sides" do battle when their gender identities tangle and merge?
And what does love "mean" when the traditional narrative of love is
toyed with (joyously) to disintegration, and words fail to describe
what is left?
These questions are answered primarily in the building (and simultaneous
tearing down) of the tragicomic love story of "This" and "Thus." "This"
plays the part of the male lover, and "Thus" the role of the female,
unattainable beloved. What should evolve is the pattern familiar
to us all: boy meets girl, boy can't have girl, boy and girl meet secretly
but their pleasure is haunted by pain, one or both of them commit suicide,
end of story. All of those story elements are found in Paramour,
but in slightly altered or distorted form. Doris also uses humor effectively
in presenting This and Thus as a pair of courtly lovers who parody themselves.
In "Songs Love Little," a theatrical piece complete with stage directions,
Thus appears with her twin, "Tush," and begins the banter with a series
of self-contradictory declarations:
Enough! … One kiss but make it quick! … Your kindness
can't corrupt us! …
Together we'll corrupt even this fellow-corrupter!
To which This responds: "Oh my pretty! Oh my other pretty! Amenably
surround me!" In tales of courtly love, there can be only one
beloved; the introduction of Thus's twin, who is just as "amenable"
as Thus to This, problematizes such a narrative. Furthermore, traditionally
the male is the pursuer, and the female the pursued, but Thus's speech
indicates a streak of corrupting ability in herself and her twin. Doris
takes the convention, tweaks it, and makes it her own, and likewise
she begins to make her own statement about gender fluidity.
A further impediment to the progress of love as we have always read
it is the portrayal of This and Thus when the mask of their frilly dialogue
has been pulled off. No more the courtly lovers, or even the parody
of such lovers—they are revealed to be violently primitive and
ruled by basic passions: "This crouch on Thus face," "This lay Thus
out middle thorn branches … Thus thrust up … thrust, Thus,
hands and knees, clips violets teeth." We are also shown glimpses of
Neanderthal-like home life: "Weak, Thus lay in cave, collect moss and
trick tongue, … Thus wait," while "This hunt the day, wander,
the beast silent train." The
two subside into the male and female roles of early hominids, inhabiting
a world in which the traditional rules of "civilized" love have no place,
while in other parts of the book, they are enacting the socially acceptable
game of hunt and chase. But these are the same two characters, residing
alongside one another in the same collection of poetry. The two worlds—one
raw, one supposedly cultivated—co-exist, Doris seems to say, and
the one unravels the work of the other. Does one prevail?
At the book's end, we find the culmination of a series of poems titled
some variation of "They tear into the wood, pass into the high reeds
of underbrush. Trees hide them, they disappear behind a curtain of leaves."
Scattered throughout the collection, these poems feature This and Thus
as their more primitive selves. It is fitting that "they disappear behind
a curtain of leaves," because these are the selves underlying the courtly
lovers, the beasts beneath the gentrified pair, who disappear but undoubtedly
remain. However, these poems allow for more than indulgence in raw behavior;
they also permit the blurring of gender identities, the blending of
This and Thus, and the ultimate breakdown of our old assumptions about
love between men and women. In this final poem, for instance, "the edge
open and This Thus rip, root, a-rage, This Thus plunders center of plunder."
Now there is no distinction between plunderer and plundered; together
they dive into the center of plunder, and thus ends the story of courtly
pursuit and courtly resistance—forever. What is the commentary
with which we are left to ponder this loss of symmetry, this loss of
our favorite, age-old narrative? "Thus grunt."
This could sum up the progress we have made in Doris's ecstatically
rendered poems, but it also describes the overall progress we have witnessed
in the works of Doris, Klink, and Clarvoe combined. Advances are made,
but the cycles and patterns of existence ingrained in us all lead, ultimately,
back to the beginning. To add insult to injury, we arrive at a place
where even communication fails; the "grunt" is the wordless summation
of the whole lot: life, love, the self, and humankind. The kernel of
hope remains, though—as Klink reminds us—we are still walking,
even if in circles, and "we're almost home." •
Laura Sims's poetry appears in the debut issue of Antennae.