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Invisible Tender
Jennifer Clarvoe
Fordham University Press, $20.50 (cloth), $12.95 (paper)

Paramour
Stacy Doris
Krupskaya Press, $9 (paper)

They Are Sleeping
Joanna Klink
The University of Georgia Press, $15.95 (paper)


by Laura Sims

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 century.

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 her introduction:

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.

Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Boston Review



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