Pieces of the Whole
- Rose Solari
- April 9, 2020
Poetic sequences reign in four new books.
I’ve always had a particular taste for poems in extended sequences. Maybe it’s the combination of ambition and imaginative energy they require of the writer; perhaps it is memories of my late father reciting tantalizing bits of Eliot’s Four Quartets from memory.
I do know that whether narrative or discursive, formally driven or free, a series of poems that dives into or expands upon a central theme or event beckons to me in a very specific way. It signals urgency and reason, as if the writer is saying, “I’ve worked hard. I’ve got something really thoroughly thought through. I think it matters, has weight and value. Come, let me show you what I’ve found.”
Four very different new poetry collections beckoned to me in this way, and I found much to admire in all of them. Three contain crucial poem sequences that anchor their respective books; the fourth is a book-length sequence centered around a single theme. In their various ways, these are all challenging, inventive, and very satisfying collections.
Katherine Barrett Swett’s first full-length collection, Voice Message (Autumn House Press), is a tour de force in which formal mastery is wedded to emotional power. The book is centered around the death of the poet narrator’s daughter, but if you’re thinking we’re in confessional territory here, think again. Swett is a formalist in the best sense, using her skill — particularly with sonnet form, the predominant form used in the book — not to distance the reader from experience, but to distill it for us.
The central of the book’s three sections, “Vermeer’s Daughters,” is occupied by that demanding sequential form called a royal crown of sonnets: an interlocking chain of 15 sonnets, in which the last line of each of the first 13 poems is also the first line of the next; the 14th poem concludes with the first line of the first poem; and the 15th and final poem is composed of the first lines of all the previous poems in order. Swett navigates these challenges with breathtaking ease. No rhyme feels forced, and every image shimmers.
Each poem in Swett’s sequence takes on a different painting by Vermeer, each featuring a girl or young woman. The tone is both elegiac and celebratory, the narrator sometimes allowing her own grief for her daughter into a poem, then slipping away again, as in the opening of “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher”:
Just as the liquid pours but never sinks,
I every day defy the gravity,
deny there’s any reason why I blink
except perhaps a mote caught in my eye.
Behind her form, the map and sun-splotched walls,
the lightness where her dark dress is immured;
outside the colored glass, the morning calls
of sailors and the slap of boats secured.
How subtle the reference is to the narrator’s unshed tears in the opening lines, how musically appealing the rhyme of immured and secured. And, as in every poem in this royal crown, the poet deftly suggests the world behind the painting, evoking the sounds of life outside the frame.
Grief is of necessity about absence, and yet this elegiac book is also richly peopled. A pair of villanelles for the lost daughter in the book’s first section gives us vivid glimpses of what’s missing. From “Flute Song,” for example, the lines “And when we she played she lightly swayed her hips / and kept time softly with her slippered foot” are precise in image and also so deeply musical, with the internal rhyme of played and swayed, the consonance of softly and slippered, that I found my body moving with them as I read.
And in “Winter Light,” in the lines “your brother smiles and something in his mouth — / I think death left behind a bit of you,” the dash between lines creates an added suspense to the line break, the promise of smiles now cruelly yanked away by death.
The book concludes with a section of poems about mythological and fictional characters and literary figures from the past. Again, the sonnet form predominates but never grows tiresome. With her first full-length collection, Swett establishes herself as a poet of great skill, with a keen ear and a wise eye. This is a stunning book.
Matt Morton’s debut collection, Improvisation Without Accompaniment (BOA Editions), impressed me in different ways. If Swett is all precision and economy, Morton is her poetic opposite, casting out long, tumbling lines full of associations and digressions. Part of the aesthetic thrill for me in reading these aptly named improvisations was in seeing how far Morton could allow his conjecturing mind to wander before pulling a poem to together in powerful and often surprising conclusion.
The following, from the book’s opening poem, “Republic,” is illustrative of Morton’s style:
Each day begins by promising a clear-cut expedition, but
by evening I find myself perplexed, unsure of what
meaning means, or why meanness — which means
differently — so easily enters the heart
but takes a lifetime to root out. Finite
infinitives: to sale, to sing, to sigh. If I seem to be
fascinated by trains, it is because I was born
on a desert planet where there were none, oh to speed
though evergreens in search of a focal point…
Read aloud, it tumbles off the tongue delightfully, like good conversation. A statement of certainty is retracted in its next line; a digression that might seem sophomoric, about meaning, is rescued by a genuine insight, hammered down in three monosyllables: to root out.
A brief, sighing observation about verbs, and then the speaker is off again, returning to the Texas landscape of his childhood that informs so much of the collection. Just as the focal point referred to here is never delivered, so the poems here enact only provisional certainties. Like good jazz solos, they suggest more than they resolve.
Morton’s nine-poem sequence, “Elegy for My Brother in the Wilderness,” contains some of the strongest work in the collection. In the opening poem, the narrator tells us, “It is important, first, to reconcile yourself with the stars, which pose / as beacons but are all gas and fire,” and that combination of beauty and threat, in human beings and in nature, becomes the bass note in the series.
He goes on to explore youthful memories, dream fragments, and to retell and then re-write the myth of the goddess Diana and Actaeon, the young hunter who came upon her bathing in a river. In Ovid’s original, Diana punishes him for having seen her nakedness by turning him into a stag. In Morton’s retelling, the water is empty, there is no transgression, and yet, the dangers of the natural world win out, anyway. “And now I do not know if it was me,” Morton writers, “who found you struggling in the water.”
He concludes the sequence with a memory of punching his brother when they were teenagers, a sharp shock to both the sibling and the reader. Morton’s best poems beguile the reader, and then deliver just such punches.
John Murillo’s second collection, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books), starts punching with the spelling of its title, letting the reader know that our country’s institutionalized racism, and a fierce and righteous anger about it, will be subject matter here. Murillo writes long poems, most two pages or longer, but he sustains the tension in them with authority and urgency.
In the gorgeous “Upon Hearing that Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,” Murillo begins with an anecdote about two sparrows, one with his foot trapped in a car’s closed door, and another, his mate, circling, both calling to the poet for help. The speaker’s failure to help them — he knows what might happen to a black man opening a stranger’s car door — leads to a tumbling riff on love and its failures, a street fight, and a family picnic in a park with swans, stitched together by the warm, confiding tone of the narrator’s voice.
Lines such as “I know you thought this was about birds // but stay with me,” and “I’m digressing, sure” feel as if they’re being spoken quietly by a close acquaintance with something important to tell us. The poem concludes:
When I left my parents’ house, I never looked back. By which
I mean I made like a god and disappeared. As when I left
the sparrows. And the copulating swans. As when someday
I’ll leave this city. Its every failing, its every animal song.
The way the language swings here from the colloquial “made like” to the more formal “copulating,” the repetition of left, past tense, followed by the prediction of future leaving, the evocation of gods, parents, sparrows, swans, the city itself — so much is covered in these four lines that bring the whole nearly six-page poem together in this unpredictable and deeply moving conclusion.
The middle section of Murillo’s book is a 15-poem sequence entitled “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn.” As with the Dylan Thomas poem alluded to in the title, an incendiary fury runs through this sequence. Lines such as, “You dream of stockpiles — bottles filled with gas / and wicks stripped from a dead cop’s slacks,” and “A mother kneels and prays / Not peace, but pipe bombs, hands to light the fuse,” with their mostly single-syllable words, hammer the speaker’s rage into the reader’s ears.
The fact that each poem begins with an epigraph from another male black American poet addressing racism adds a suggestion of literary brotherhood that feels like a precious lifeline through the anger and the pain. This book is a hard read, and a necessary one.
Rue (BOA Editions) is Kathryn Nuernberger’s third book, and it shows in the skill with which she navigates the challenges of this book-length poetic sequence. This collection intertwines the narrator’s troubled marriage with her study of botany and the folklore surrounding plants and herbs. Rue in all its multiple meanings — the herb, considered both a good-luck blessing and an abortifacient, and the emotion, deeper and more poignant than mere regret — forms the spine of the book.
Nuernberger’s most explicit formal choice here is to employ titles and lines long enough that the book is printed in a wider format than others from this publisher, and I applaud BOA for making that assuredly costly choice but wise choice.
Like Murillo, Nuernberger blends the colloquial and the elevated in intimate monologues that keep shifting their focus. What holds the poems in Rue together is the speaker’s warm and urgent voice, fueled intellectual hunger, and a seemingly newly simmering anger, as in these opening lines from “I’ll Show You Mine if You Show Me Yours”:
In the coffee shop was a guy with a really nice bald head
and one of those sleek jackets with the zip-up neck
that look great with a pair of well-cut jeans, which
he also had. I confess, I was looking him up and down
like a woman who has been reading Rumi and also a tome
on the history of bear cults in Europe. I just turned 35,
just got a promotion, just discovered the male gaze,
by which I mean I gaze on men like some sort of man,
by which I mean I’m hungry for my own hunger.
In two sentences stretched over nine lines, the poem links quotidian detail (the coffee shop, the guy’s clothes, the promotion), to intellectual preoccupations (Rumi, bear cults, and the concept of the male gaze, reconsidered), a pattern that will recur throughout the book. This is a poet who thinks hard about ordinary things and who can derive as much meaning from looking at a bird of paradise as she can from the old Meatloaf song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
The title poem of the collection, a prose poem, begins with the line, “‘Let’s try again,’ he says,” followed by a list of reasons why the speaker is unwilling to do just that, interwoven with historical and botanical references. “I could, but I wear this pressed flower around my neck, as all the girls once wore a charm, and it will not let me believe never anymore a promise,” the narrator tells him. “Da Vinci and Michelangelo both took rue to preserve their vision and keep it sharp.”
Her catalogue also includes priests, witches, Hildegard of Bingen, and even Christ himself, until the poem winds down to the simplest of lasts line: “I could, but I don’t think I will.” After a virtuosic display of well-earned erudition, it seems desire here hinges most of all on will — a truth well-earned for both writer and reader.
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.