Challenge and Ambition

Four poetry collections that will stretch you as a reader.


This month, I’m focusing on four poetry collections that, in various ways, challenge and stretch the reader’s expectations in terms of content, form, or both. Two of the books cast a wide net, tackling content from the worlds of biology or politics, while the other two drill deep, employing either a single theme or a single form.

Taken together, they remind us of the multiplicity of possibilities that are available to poets and to readers of poetry now.

*****

Charlotte Pence’s third collection, Code (Black Lawrence Press), braids private grief and scientific fact. The book is dedicated to Pence’s late friend, the poet Shira Shaiman, and, in a surprising and generous move, includes some of Shaiman’s own poems in three of its five sections.

In fact, part of the challenge of absorbing this complex and deeply intelligent book lies in its continual surprises; Pence, in her grief, is a questioner, an explorer, incorporating unlikely elements (such as two short essays, “Codicil” and “Stubby Horses and Why We Paint Them”) into the collection. The shifts in form and voice — from poetry to prose, from Pence to Shaiman — can be disorienting but seem to me appropriate to the dizzying, off-balance sense that the loss of a loved one can bring.

Pence’s wry self-awareness provides ballast. In “The Weight of the Sun,” about nursing an infant at 4 a.m., she eschews predictable sentimentality: “Mainly I like pretending I am the only one / awake, the only one seeing the world / at this instant.”

The poem “Helen of Troy” begins, “The Trojans kept Helen for twelve / years, winning at least a little while.” But don’t be fooled by the occasional seemingly offhand remark: Pence possesses a formidable intellect that asserts itself throughout the volume, never more clearly than in the book’s central section, “Code: A Sequence in 23 Parts.”

This sequence is written in the voices of three alternating speakers: a new mother dying of an inherited disease; her husband; and DNA itself. It is the last of these three voices that I found the most challenging in Pence’s book, despite the thorough notes she provides on the science behind this section.

Determined to give the author her due, I engaged a physician friend to discuss with me a poem written almost entirely in DNA code: the letters A, C, G, and T in various paired sequences. Entitled “DNA Knows Once You Say It, You Can’t Take It Back,” it consists of four sections, each containing the DNA codes for, respectively, cystic fibrosis, color blindness, sickle cell anemia, and finally, the disease that killed Shaiman, abnormal Huntington.

By giving these codes their own voice, Pence points to the way the DNA itself has a kind of agency. As my doctor friend said, “Once you write it, it’s self-replicating.”

Reading that string of broken pairs in the Huntington section, I felt as if Shaiman’s illness was speaking, no, screaming, at me. It’s an astonishing poem, well worth the challenge of climbing inside it, that casts ripples in one’s mind long past reading it.          

*****

Kelvin Corcoran’s The Republic of Song (Parlor Press) has its own grief to sing — for a pre-Brexit U.K., for the cracking of the European Union. Corcoran, who is English, is a prolific poet, the author of multiple books and chapbooks. As the poems in this collection make clear, he has a deep love, even reverence, for the poets and poetic traditions of his country. But he’s also deeply angry, and it is those two strands, love and rage, that surge through this book with equal ferocity.

The book’s opening poem, “Rue des Hiboux,” begins with these no-nonsense lines about his native land:          

            To write a mythology
                        commensurate to an ignorant island
                        is not difficult.
            They were of that class of traitor
            self-serving, unimaginative.          

            Their only skill
                        to make the poor vote for poverty…

Ensuing poems push and prod at the circumstances leading up to Brexit, with special scorn reserved for Boris Johnson, but Corcoran is a poet of international focus. As the book progresses, the subject matter widens into concentric circles of historical fact and literary tradition.

As with Pence’s book, the ghost of a poet friend hovers nearby: In this case, that of Lee Harwood, who passed away in 2015. Harwood, a leading figure in what is known as the British Poetry Revival — a movement in the 1960s and 1970s to open English poetry to modern influences from France and the Unites States, particularly the New York School poets — is treated with particular tenderness in the elegy “The Sinking Colony Revisited in the Days of Lee Harwood,” which concludes: “poet in labyrinth turns, follows the sound of the sounds of the sea; / poet scales the final mountain, everyone’s there, it’s ok.”

This blend of the mythological and the colloquial, as in the notion of scaling Parnassus only to find that it’s “ok,” runs throughout The Republic of Song, allowing the poet access to an enormous range of references and allusions.

When this blend works, it’s dazzling, as in the poem “Listening to Country Music,” a title that refers to a Jason Isbell song, quoted in the poem, “Cigarettes and Wine,” but not really much explored. Instead, over multiple sections and six pages, the speaker, writing from Greece to a “you” who slips in and out of focus, ruminates on the agency and meaning of various mythological figures — Dionysus, Apollo, the Bacchae, Orpheus and Eurydice — in a voice so warm and musical that even some meta-text on what it means to write poetry, to write music, to play, slides easily into the whole.

At his finest, Corcoran wears his breadth of knowledge lightly.

*****

Lauren Camp’s fifth poetry collection, Took House (Tupelo Press), explores obsessive desire. Arranged in two sections, “The Exact Color of Welcome” and “Days at Zero,” the book opens with a prefatory poem, “Appetite,” which gives the reader both the central theme and image of the book: The speaker tells us of a woman, full to the brim of desire, drinking at a bar table with or without the object of that desire, allowing herself to give into longing. The speaker says, of the heart, “It is the largest / muscle and she let it // take over, she let it.”

The poems in this book insist on the “let,” on the way the women glimpsed here, in first or third person, claim their agency. It’s as if Camp is holding a magnifying glass in the light until the page beneath it catches fire. In that way, she reminds me a bit of Anne Sexton, an alchemist of desire if ever there was one.

Camp is also a visual artist, and poems based on the work of mid-20th-century artists Sol Lewitt, Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, and Eva Hesse are some of the collection’s strongest. She’s an attentive observer of the natural world, as well, which in the end provides some consolation for the ravages of desire.

The book’s final poem, “Homeostasis: Autumn,” portrays a gorgeous desert landscape, where a volunteer squash has planted itself, and hawks circle overhead in a kind of blessing. “This is why the pangs of time are necessary,” Camp writes, before concluding, “The whole day has nearly disappeared and night is a ruffle about to blossom.”

What soft music imbues that line, and what elegant promise offers itself in that near-blossom.

*****

Peter Kline’s Mirrorforms (Parlor Press) is also a book of obsession, though his focus is on form rather than content. Divided into five sections — Psalms, End Stops, Monologues, Studies, and Votives — the book employs a single poetic form: an eight-line poem, consisting of two four-line stanzas, and in which the last line is the same, or nearly so, as the first.

Part of the pleasure of reading this book is seeing how well the poet can maintain the tension of the form. Will it grow predictable, or will consistent, small innovations sustain the whole?

For the most part, Kline succeeds, employing short, tight lines and elliptical phrasing, reminiscent of Robert Creeley’s work, in a way that keeps us wanting more. The final section, Votives, contains some of the book’s strongest work, including “Blue Yonder,” which begins, “I can still feel your blue, / hard like the truth is hard,” the one-syllable words tapping forthrightly.

The music expands just a bit in the final lines: “On the flatlands of your death / your ripcord smile is myth. / I can still feel your blue.”

How flat those lands, how harsh that ripcord. What a powerful poem of grief in a strong book.

Rose Solari is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, The Last Girl, Orpheus in the Park, and Difficult Weather; the one-act play “Looking for Guenevere”; and the novel A Secret Woman. She has lectured and taught writing workshops at many institutions, including the University of Maryland, College Park; St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland; and the University of Oxford’s Centre for Creative Writing in Oxford, England. Her awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, an EMMA award for excellence in journalism, and multiple grants. In 2010, she co-founded Alan Squire Publishing, a small press with big ideas.

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