University of Iowa Press, $13 (paper)
“I am asking the most edgeless questions, so words will keep them, so the green gods in my mind will lull and lie,” Karen Volkman writes in an early poem in Spar, her second volume and follow-up to Crash’s Law, a National Poetry Series selection for 1995. Published as the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize and subsequently awarded the James Laughlin Award from The Academy of American Poets, Spar pushes Volkman’s work further into that numinous terrain where one is always half aware and half in wonder. The poems seem to emanate from the far-off-sounding voice of a speaker hidden inside a wall, with an intimacy at once familiar and strange. Perhaps this is because it is never quite clear who is being addressed, who the familiar “you” of these poems is—indeed, it is often unclear who is doing the addressing. And yet it is precisely this edgelessness, as frequently erotic as it is uncertain, which gives the book its framework, in which “the sheerest slips of seeing” permeate “the dark which borders the light’s collusive motion.”
With the exception of nine lineated and titled poems spread throughout the text, Spar is a collection of untitled prose poems, giving it the feel of a book-length work as the incantatory intensity of each poem bleeds into the next. This approach to the construction of a book seems to be on the rise as of late; C. D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, Barbara Guest’s Rocks on a Platter, and Susan Wheeler’s Source Codes, to name a few, all share with Spar that sense of the book as sustaining its particular atmospheric condition, although each carries its own distinct weather pattern. Spar’s forecast is often tumultuous, as in the beginning of this poem:
It could be a bird that says summer, that says gather no late failing harvest in a wealth of arms. Lost weed, still you remember in a storm-suit, the sky came down to walk among us, oh to talk. Such gray conviction, cracked calculus, chasm.
The poem ends, as do many in the book, with a movement toward the desirous, blurring the lines between sensuality and power relationships. Here are the last two sentences:
Suit, suit, you’re a cold suit, your stitched rain shivers and splinters, what web is this? Unnumbered mesh of other, kill, kiss.
At heart the book is centered on the metaphysical search for the causes and underlying nature of things and, simultaneously, their inevitable disruption. Although there is “subject matter” to these poems, however gestural or elusive it may be, the poems are interesting not so much in what they are about, but rather howthey are about—how they move through a series of breakdowns and reconfigurations. Once she begins a poem, somewhat situating the reader, Volkman will inevitably spend the duration of it unraveling, twisting, or completely abandoning what one might at first take to be her topic. Here is the first paragraph of a poem early in the book:
More feet on more legs, more hands on more wrists, more eyes in more . . . Directives fail me, it is safer to bail.
In the third paragraph the poem returns to a directive, albeit with urgent rather than desirous intent:
Help, there’s a sky full of sutures, great gashed heavens of benighted design. There’s a mountain of mirrors, and a shore of shattered wares. My ventricle darling, it’s mercury’s mandate, to bleed and bead and trickle, and stay whole.
Volkman’s bleeding, beading, and trickling of both content and form engenders a lack of closure and poetic epiphany, allowing the poems to maintain their mysterious anonymity through multiple readings. One could make an argument for Spar’s reclaiming of the symbolist tradition from the likes of later Yeats and Eliot, whose complex symbologies gave little leeway to multiple interpretations. But Volkman instead harks back to Baudelaire and Mallarmé, whose symbols were intended to suggest and evoke rather than to denote specifically and steadfastly. By latching onto Mallarmé’s poetic imitation of the paradox of musical meaning, the simultaneous conflation of poetry and music and words and their sound, Volkman creates a poetic atmosphere in which one is never “exhausted with indifferent meaning,” but thankful for the lushness of possibilities such an environment produces.
Throughout Spar, Volkman’s lively prose allows for the shift between declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory sentences to present not the seamless inevitability one often expects of prose but an opulent recurrence of Volkman’s slippery and vowel-heavy lexicon, which ultimately gives each poem its sense of movement. This creates distance between speaker and text, as the “I” of the book often drifts in some evanescent way station of experience; however, it is that drift which becomes the locus for one’s attention. Here is a later poem in its entirety:
They make it go, lighting candles, peeling off the rind. I understand little but I listen, I give my fractured attention to the All. Coil of our ire, wanton lasso, we keep bringing the strangest animals home to graze! The farmer tends his arid acre, space between if andwhen. —But I haven’t done anything I wanted. —But I don’t have anything to show. O landscape of skinny lesions, o hopscotch forget-me-not brandished by heathen men, what became of your promises, your oaths, oh where did they go? I’m still here—my dubious ticker knows one thing about momentum—but in some more saturate sorrow, I am more than carbon or echo: I am fame.
There is an eerie sort of darkness, a tendency towards the minor scale, that permeates much of the work here. This is due in part to the book’s continual interrogation of both anthropomorphic abstractions and just plain ghost-like figures: “Shrewd star, who crudes our naming: you should be flame”; “Lady of the lake, what does all our weeping lead to?”; “Dear noon, what goes up and up and never others?”; “Tender feather, tell me a flight thing, never a trap thing, never a fall.” Additionally, one feels the looming shadow of Grendel throughout much of the book’s approximation of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse: “Opaquely blind, unbeneficent bird of the wisps, stoic as the sea’s black silence. So skewedly, dispassionate, one absence destroys its opposite.” Volkman’s baroque diction, while bordering on the contrived, lulls one into its world, which finally is inhabitable precisely because of its continuity of excess. These poems are literally packed tight, though on occasion they lapse into the merely decorative (“Punk’s smooth shiv slid decisive, between the sky’s ribs”); regardless, their rhythmic undulations, assonance, consonance, and overall sonic flair ferry the reader through each with an eclectic energy. At times this requires backtracking in order to regain the thread of meaning/imagery, stammering the poem’s impact. Volkman, however, almost argues for the potentiality inherent in such an approach: “One promise impotently ends, a finite backward forebear of pleasure.”
• • •
The nine titled and lineated poems offer somewhat of a respite from the density and overwrought singularity of the rest of the book, allowing for a kind of visual breathing room and a larger range of tonal register. Here is the fourth section of “Kiss Me Deadly,” a blues riff of sorts:
She moves, she means, she masters.
She deems, she dooms, she stammers.
Schools, and schemes, and skitters,
rumors, raptures, rathers. She aspires.
She did, she don’t, she daren’t.
She shall, she shan’t, she shouldn’t.
Hooped and looped and latent,
she doth, she loath, she mightn’t.
She make, she moan, she silent.
She gave, she grieve, she amn’t.
Because of its musical leanings Spar is a book that requires both giving in and returning to. It is not “easy,” not filled with narratives that lend themselves to paraphrase nor poems that distill into nice, aphoristic truisms. However, because of its multi-prize-winning critical reception Spar does mark a welcome shift in what Charles Bernstein has referred to as “official verse vulture.” Volkman’s self-admitted technique of circuitous investigation, her “edgeless” questioning, continually spirals the book inward until it almost shimmers, like the above-mentioned mercury, with her embrace of all things malleable.