Review: Powell, Ramsdell, Truitt
December 1, 1998
Dec 1, 1998
9 Min read time
Reading three first books of poems.
D. A. Powell
University of Illinois, $11.95
Lost Roads, $12
There is a special excitement at the prospect of a poet's first book-the potential reader is excited by the promise of something new, as if Pound's famous command were the only requirement. "Make it new," he said, and this is perhaps a less daunting task to the young (or at least new) poet, than that other of Pound's dicta: "Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose." Reading these first books of poems by D. A. Powell, Heather Ramsdell, and Sam Truitt brings still another Modernist's observation to mind. It is the painter Lily Briscoe's thought, given her by Virginia Woolf: "But one only woke people if one knew what one wanted to say to them. And she wanted to say not one thing, but everything. Little words that broke up the thought and dismembered it said nothing." Writing new things and writing them well, all three of these poets have the ambition to wake up an audience, and they know what they want to say. Even in spite of themselves-and as if to defy Woolf's admirable caveat-they want to say not one thing, but everything.
D. A. Powell provides a prose preface to his book, and its first sentence declares: "This is not a book about AIDS." Thus the reader is awakened to several possibilities, not the least of which is that mortality and morality are implicated in this language. Tea is a gorgeous book, elegantly and appropriately staged by the book designer and typesetter, a book whose central issues are about as central as you can get: life, death, love, social intercourse in the face of the world's crafty nay-saying. Each of the wide, short pages spins its lines to the horizon, reminiscent in a way of Leaves of Grass as Whitman wanted it, free in its forms, yet compellingly compact. Powell's poems range generally from five to seven lines each, one poem per page, the first line emboldened as a title in brackets. These forms become amazingly supple, the off-handed tone surprisingly intimate and compelling:
afternoons I knelt beside your hiding place
[this is the part
where you speak to me from beyond]
and he walks with me and he talks with me.
he tells me that
I am his own. dammit
nothing. oh sure once in a while a
dream. a half-instant.
but you are no angel you are
repeating the same episodes: nick at
night. tricky nick.
nicholas at halloween a giant tampon
don't make me mature by myself: re-
dundancy of losing
common ground. for once be serious
In spite of the up-to-date pop references (the name of the apostrophized subject connected to a cable-TV comedy show, the reference to Tricky Dick Nixon-nicely contrasted with the use of a line from a hymn, by the way), the poem suggests the intricate, tragical playfulness of John Berryman. It even suggests the rollicking rhythm of Berryman's Dream Songs. But many domestic dangers lurk throughout this book, their patterns predictable yet aggressive and full of odd grandeurs:
our family was tolerant of even anti-christs.
but gramma had
the recessive gene. now a lemon
the size of a lump grows in her bosom: she
has bosom cancer.
rock of ages cleft for me
Heather Ramsdell has written another kind of newness altogether. There are no closets in Powell's book; he writes of an era and a rage far beyond those days. And while there is a closet in Ramsdell's book, it has nothing to do with gender and anger, but with-well, listen:
I thought I'd say some more about the closet.
The closet-my god, the closet is a tangle of
sleeves, I could go in but even dreams avoid
it. And something is bound to come from
that. Some of the shit stacked up in there.
Some of shit stuffed in-I could go on.
And she does, delightfully. She goes on and she goes in. And the things of the closet, the things of the world, remain things, as if Ramsdell were giving them every opportunity to declare their being. The last of the sequence of five poems in the section of Lost Wax entitled "More About the Closet" is called "Where Things of a Kind," and it ends this way: "is / that a fire to your left, the trees / stop, bear with us, that / rock is that / hard, there is no need for proof // now, do not move. Do not anything."
Lost Waxis a National Poetry Series Winner, selected by James Tate, and you can see why Tate would like it, what he would find admirable in it. These poems are not like Tate's, but they would seem to admire Tate's poetic: they have been educated by the entire century, the early wit and the mid-century wisdom and the late-century guarded avant-gardism. But what these poems are is also new. Late in the book, in a poem called "Ligature," we go into another restricted space, not a closet, but a cellar: "in front of your face a hand / is waving, in the dark are you there are you sure?" And of course you are not sure-who could be these days? Further into the poem, Ramsdell writes:
I think of something else, memory
breaks into darks. And lights and
all odd grays and subtlety fall out.
To promise at once
comprehension in a flashing
fire is the punishment of the story.
Comprehension and the epiphanal moment (flashing fire, illumination?) are, in Ramsdell's time and space, not the reward, but the punishment: "Punishment / in the sense of perseverance." If this "sense" strikes us as un-obvious and we go to the dictionary, we are reminded that "perseverance" derives from the Latinseverus, meaning strict or difficult, and is related (however oddly) to "truth." And there is a delicate severity to this book, a lightness of touch which belies difficult, determined examinations of how we know and what we know. Lost Wax, after all, refers to a process for making new art by simultaneously destroying the wax shape into which molten metal has been poured. Wax is lost, and bronze hardens into sculpture. A similarly discreet violence is at work in Ramsdell's world, and a brave determination to examine, to give to things their proper respect: "Sad, to shut / to shut other / things into the space left / the space that I left / the space in skewed perspective twisting." This book is primarily concerned with how hard it is to recognize the truth, however old-fashioned it may seem to say so: "(Don't I know you? / I must, I recognize your face in all things and all things must fit / together . . . )."
If Ramsdell often sends us to the dictionary, Sam Truitt has performed a sort of self-made lexicographical tour de force: from the very title of the book onward, words dance like drops of water on a skillet: as long as they keep hopping they exist, but stasis is death. The first noun the reader encounters-after the title itself,Anamorphosis Eisenhower-is "Kerf." And a little exploring reminds us that aside from the word's meaning of "groove" or "cutting," when traced to its presumed pre-literate origin, "kerf" is related to "grammar," "paragraph," "graffito," "graph," and "anagram," not to mention "carve" and "crawl." They all fit. The Greek graphein is implicated in all this-"to write." Having started such a process, one then turns back to the book's title to find that "anamorphosis" refers to various kinds of alteration, as in botanical variants along an evolutionary chain. And the word names what happens when, as in the children's game, a distorted drawing viewed in a cylindrical mirror is distorted back into appearing "normal."
The exuberant ringing of changes against the norm is what this book is, and what it is about. The notion of making it new is almost beside the point, inevitable. The energy here is palpable in the lines and phrases. Here is how it all begins:
But her favorite poems take place underwa-
This one is called Holding Your Nose at Forty Fathoms
It is Easter afternoon & we walked to McDonalds
Beneath a sky of graphite clouds
For some seventy pages groups of usually sixteen, approximately iambic lines rapidly drive forward. They are divided into separate poems-for instance, "The Yard" begins: "It's about time it's about space it's about the whole goddamn human race"-but an essential energy navigates through it all, and rapidly. The reader almost resents having to stop, to slow the pace when another remarkable moment has risen to the surface and demands to be considered more slowly:
The more you breathe the more you learn
When you stop breathing you are the poet
Sometimes, reading Truitt is like being dragged by the hand through the museum or carnival by your mother who won't stop and let you look at anything, and consequently you look at everything, and see all things as a single Heraclitean stream. Words, images, fragments of narrative move with a nearly (but not quite) breathless pace-after all, "the more you breathe . . . " Few books, new or old, have turned this kind of kineticism into the sheer gorgeous pleasure Truitt here dispenses. There is, however, a price: when you stop breathing, you are the poet.
One of the most powerful poems in Truitt's Anamorphosis Eisenhower, "The Flaying of M," deals with-or plays against-a famous and disturbing painting which depicts the story of Marsyas, the satyr. Marsyas played a flute cursed by Athena, and played it so well that Apollo took vengeance on him by having him flayed and nailing his skin to a tree. The horror of this myth is faced directly in the poem: "bound from a laurel & the razor run / The length of his hide […] horseflies stinging the raw pink meat / Where his cheek was & the tears fell." The story twists and turns through sixty-four lines and into many narratives, finally ending when not just the character, but the story itself is
Turned inside out upside down hung bound from a laurel
& the razor run the length of the earth
To dig deeper life out of the brains of ore
Before death comes to sit on our faces with a grunt.
It is part of the project of all these poets that they no longer observe the comforting divisions of labor but continually thrust responsibility back on the reader, blurring the differences between reading (consuming) and writing (producing). Thus our interest as readers is continually renewed, and it usually comes down to trying to understand what we ourselves are doing with the borrowed language of our own usage, not merely of the poems, remarkable as they are. The real issue for each of these three poets is something like authenticity, authority, and the nature of language when language is not property, not the old set of meanings and margins, but is allowed the property of being itself again. Poetry might be (like the law, for a more familiar form of language) not subject to claims of authorship and originality. The origin of our words and literary products and projects is always part of the poem. And the wonder of it is, each of these remarkable poets has caused us to see again in the ancient origins of their works that each word, and each work, is new, and awakens us to everything the world has to offer.
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December 01, 1998
9 Min read time