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On the poetry of Melissa Range.
Beacon Press, $18 (paper)
Formalist poetry regularly tries and fails to escape the charge of atavism, so it is to Melissa Range’s credit that she doesn’t make such an attempt. Sometimes, the only way out is through. Her poetry is avowedly poetry with a history, or, more accurately, with several—at least three, by my count.
One history is that signaled by the title of Range’s collection: a Christian history, in which struggles of doubt and faith are seen on a timescale stretching back to medieval Europe. This is a history in which the same issues face both medieval pilgrims traveling to Chartres and modern tourists making the same journey:
sun pools blue and scarlet
on the floor, dappling the medallion
where, the legend goes, penitents
and priests walked on their knees.
Now anyone can walk here,
including the faithless, whom God always sees.
In this vein, Range writes poems in the voices (and sometimes words) of Hildegard of Bingen and Mechthild of Magdeburg. She relates her own labor, at both writing and belief, to that of the scribe Eadfrith in Lindisfarne. She recasts the Anglo-Saxon Fortunes of Men and puzzles over the exact nature of Byrhtnoth’s ofermōd in The Battle of Maldon.
Poetically, she draws from this history both a tone of fatalistic asperity and a striking ornateness. At times, ornamentation overflourishes content, but that excess does not make Range’s poetry any less lovely:
World’s Glim, Grim Cinderer, is it sin
or history or a whimsied hex that burns
all life to tar? We are dust, carbon
spilled out from your Word, a lamp overturned
into the pitch of pit beneath your pen
the inkhorn filled before the world was born.
A second history is more immediate—that of the culture and dialect of the Appalachian communities among which Range grew up. Her engagements with this history produce both the least and most successful moments of the collection. Although exaggerating supposed deficiencies in the face of criticism can be a sympathetic pose, poems such as “Hit” and “Regionalism,” addressed to snooty northerners, risk overplaying their defensive folksiness. By contrast, those Appalachian poems that focus inward—talking not only about, but to Appalachian communities—are consistently beautiful. They introduce, in contradistinction to the aforementioned Christian ornateness, a colloquial, understated, laconically humorous tone:
“It’s a-skiffin’,” we say,
to mean there’s not much,
there won’t be much, and it’ll be gone
in two shakes. It’s untelling
where it goes. It’s untelling
who’ll tell it once it’s gone.
Poems drawn from both sets of historical sources have their own strengths, but the book really catches fire when they converge, as in the poems “Ofermod” and “Fortunes of Men.” The interaction allows Range to produce depictions of contemporary Appalachia that are both plain and lavish, at once vividly here and now, and movingly sub specie aeternitatis.
Somewhere beneath these two clearly stated histories is another, more implicitly conjured one—a history of metrical verse form. These poems think and rethink the legacy of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who drew, in his idiosyncratic way, upon Anglo-Saxon and Middle English verse for its alliteration and rhythm, as well as its non-Latinate vocabulary. If Range reaches successfully for these distant precedents it is in part because her approach is mediated, not by any attempt at a direct revival, but through Hopkins and his theorization of “sprung rhythm.”
Three histories support Range's work—a Christian history, an Appalachian history, and the history of metrical verse form.
What Hopkins calls “running rhythm”—iambic, trochaic, even anapestic—acts (according to him) like a mold into which words have to be fitted. Sprung rhythm, by contrast, has a more intensifying, less transforming effect. Range’s vital deployment of sprung rhythm allows her to use Appalachian speech in verse form without slipping into balladeering and to write ornate rhyming alliterative verse without sounding stuffy. It also fits her into one of the key histories of English-language metrical innovation over the last hundred years or so: a lineage of Hopkins-obsessed poets that includes Geoffrey Hill and Elizabeth Bishop. Range has similarities with both, though it is hard to tell if this is a matter of influence or a case of convergent evolution.
At her most ornate moments, Range makes a noise not so different from Hill when he is pushing Hopkins’s inconstant opulence in the direction of tightness and concision. Compare Range’s
Fisher of Men, king of the purple page,
before you died, gore matted in your hair,
men flogged you, wound you in a purple rag.
Ascended, enthroned in Caesar’s attire,
your mantel now redeems you with his wage:
twelve thousand deaths upon the shores of Tyre.
The Jesus-faced man walking crowned with flies
who swats the roadside grass or glances up
at the streaked gibbet with its birds that swoop,
who scans his breviary while the sweat dries,
fades, now, among the fading tapestries,
brooches of crimson tears where no eyes weep
The similarity is not just of matter but of means, drawn from Hopkins but developed away from him too—the half-rhymes sometimes breaking into rhymes, the strong line breaks they mark, and, above all, the stately, emphatic sprung rhythm pentameter, allowing for plenty of reversed feet and stresses in direct contact, but eschewing Hopkins’s tendency to fall back on long patches of unstressed syllables, through which the reader is encouraged to hurry.
Conversely, in her plainspoken moments, Range’s work resembles Bishop’s loosenings of Hopkins’s excessive verse into a powerful vessel for carrying dialect and local particularity. Again, compare Range’s lines
My father on a ladder doesn’t sing;
he cusses, banging boards
onto the wind-scrapped barn,
roof half off, wood give out, sky
spitting snow, salvaging
his daddy’s daddy’s daddy’s work
In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Despite the differences between the dialects and local cultures they lovingly depict, both are using a flexible sprung rhythm trimeter which, by turns, compresses for emphasis and spreads out for liveliness, and which is kept from falling into prose by being split up into short, clear lines. At its extreme, it forces one of the “daddy’s” to be stressed less than the other two and makes “with” more emphatic than either “King” or “Queen.” In both cases, this distinct emphasis is recognizable as mirroring a pattern of speech. In their plainness of diction and shortness of line, Range and Bishop both differ from Hopkins—Hopkins is typically capturing exclamation, whereas the speech rendered here is quiet. Bishop and Range, however, learn from Hopkins how far one can twist sprung rhythm to force unexpected but meaningful emphasis.
To place Range in these lines of descent from Hopkins is not to disparage her originality, but rather to indicate how her poetry thinks deeply about the origins and resonances of the forms it uses. At her best, as in “Ofermod,” “Fortunes of Men,” and “Biblia Pauperum,” Range writes poetry which is, in its quirky dignity and deadpan humor, no less than in its metrical invention, extremely distinctive:
One will work the dirt; one will punch
a timecard; one will be too agitated
to hold down any job for long . . .
Another will rev his Dodge
around the lake of a Saturday night,
lit up on Old Crow,
but will never wreck, never run
some innocent off the road . . . .
Like some of Hopkins’ later poems (“Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” for example), this verse carries a thumping tune while simultaneously being barely metrical. It takes a second’s pause to identify the stresses in the first line of this passage as “work,” “dirt,” and “punch,” just as it does, for different reasons, to note those in the sixth as “up,” “Old” and “Crow.” In both cases, we have to pick three stresses out of five candidates to read the line as a trimeter, like those surrounding it. In the case of line one—which has almost too many syllables—this involves reading it quickly, swallowing potential stresses into anapests. In the case of line six (almost too few syllables), it involves reading it slowly, inserting a pause after “Old” to arrive at iambic. The trimeter that results in both lines is resounding, but reaching it requires one not merely to read aloud, but to actively perform the line—to vary pacing, to swallow some sounds and rest on others—to sound, in short, like a person speaking and not like a poem running through a metrical template. In a feat of resolved contradiction it is when, rendering this poem to yourself, you hit the meter most fully that the result sounds least like a poem hitting its meter.
Where Bishop uses sprung rhythm to subtly accentuate certain features of the speech she records, and where Hill uses it to add a touch of roughness to his formal ornament, Range here takes colloquial language and makes it unmistakably high-poetic without changing its shape. This development parallels the poem’s transfiguration of local, quotidian details into providential theodicy. Throughout Scriptorium, Range finds the poetic in the colloquial, the past in the present, the transcendent in the immanent. Perhaps her most impressive achievement, however, is her ability to turn engagement with the long history of metrical form in English into a foundation for strikingly innovative poetic technique.
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