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Surveying the Landscape

Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions by Maurice Manning. Yale University Press, 2001.

Small Gods of Grief by Laura-Anne Bosselaar. Boa Editions, 2001.

Saunter by Joshua Mckinney. University of Georgia Press, 2001.

As Reviewed By: Ravi Shankar

Every year, with the regularity of migrating birds, a new flock of first poetry books takes wing, usually with such subtle fanfare that their trajectory falls below the radar of the literate public or the periodicals that inform them. Yet nonetheless, year after year, they persist, populating the world with original voices and fresh figurations that are more memorable in sum than in the actuality of the many individual collections that comprise this pool. Only a minute fraction of first-books will survive time’s ravages and be read far in the future; still, we have no better litmus test with regards to where we are poetically, and where we are headed. We live in a moment when there’s less agreement about what the tenets of great poetry might be than there has been in centuries, and so it’s only appropriate that the three books I am reviewing are as different as lizards are from birds, evolved from a common ancestor perhaps, yet so variegated, so distinct as to have no superficial details in common.

The first, Maurice Manning’s Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, last year’s winner of the Yale Younger Series of Poets, is a wily, innovative entrée into the weltanschauung of a fictitious rural boy named Lawrence Booth. I can say fairly confidently that this collection is like no other book of poetry this year. It includes a few pencil drawings for one thing, it ranges a span of dictions for another; how it all holds together, though, is a matter of debate.

The second poem in the collection, “Dramatis Personae”, introduces us to the cast of characters who will populate our protagonist Lawrence Booth’s dreams and realities. These include God, The Missionary Woman, Sissy, Black Damon, Red Dog and Mad Daddy. The implicit invocation is to Dionysus, God of drama, and accordingly, the poems that follow are literally “staged” for us maenads and satyrs; and as the stage is the narrator’s imagination, the characters are not named in any straightforward narrative way, but rather in oblique, oracular fashion. The Missionary Woman, for example, “is the peek-a-boo / bright star on the western horizon, endowed / with certain properties such as transformation” and Mad Daddy “is the man with the shotgun full of history, / the horse and the flame, and the domino shoes.”[private]

Our inference, which gains credence during the course of the lyrical sequence that follows, is that The Missionary Woman is a kind of sexualized salvation figure who, as the “peek-a-boo” alludes to, is playful; Mad Daddy, on the other hand, is bred from and given to violence (“shotgun full of history”) and known to tie one on (hence the “domino shoes,” ever ready to topple over). These characters, given to their own unique verbal proclivities, move through the poems, providing a sort of narrative backbone to the collection.

This initial identification of the poetic act with the dramatic one allows Manning considerable leeway in the form and construction of the concatenating lyrics that follow, and he exploits this dramatic emancipation throughout, delving into a variety of voices. One poem (“Progress Report”) is in the form of a letter from a school administrator to Lawrence’s parents, describing Lawrence’s erratic behavior in the classroom and ending with the question “what could be the head and source of your son’s distemper?” Another poem (“A Condensed History of Beauty”) is in the form of a timeline, presenting a chronology of fragmentary images that embody an idiosyncratic notion of beauty. Yet another poem (“Complaint”) satirizes a Circuit Court Document in which the Daughters of the Confederacy are the plaintiff and Lawrence Booth the defendant, for the apparent crime of “cut[ting] the buttons from the uniform in a portrait of…a highly decorated Confederate Calvary Officer” and leaping upon a table to shout, ‘How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!,’ “thus causing members of the Plaintiff organization to fear imminent and grievous harm to their person.”

Such innovations of form run the risk of appearing gimmicky and distracting the reader from the project at hand, but because they are couched in between vivid and evocative lyrics, they generally help sustain rather than hinder the momentum. There are, however, a few glaring lapses where Manning’s zeal to shift voices diminishes the effectiveness of his endeavor, such as in the poem “Proof,” which in keeping with the genre-bending trajectory of the collection offers us a small line drawing of two axes, some line segments, the radial of an arc, and a small television that broadcasts an even smaller guitar. The poem sets out to prove “the existence of Hell,” and proceeds by simulating a mathematical proof, with a column of Statements on one side and Reasons on the other. Some of this pseudomath is downright silly, such as:

When the proof arrives at the conclusion that the “sphere of love exists tangent to the sphere of sin,” the previous poetic misapplications of mathematical terms insure that the sheer ponderousness of such an assertion cannot be taken seriously. Statement #3 also illuminates one of Manning’s favorite techniques, which is to capitalize certain phrases (such as Great Field or Indian Tree). While certain poets have used this technique to limited success–Lucie Brock-Broido comes to mind–the overall impression is one of forced profundity and an echo of the irritating Victorian tendency to capitalize abstractions such as “Love,” “Grief” and “Peace.” The reason that Manning does have some degree of success with this antiquated technique is that because he creates his own world, he’s granted the right to name his own proper nouns, and a place like the Great Field becomes akin to an entire country.

Another point at which Manning’s modulation of tone lapses is in the series of poems in Black Damon’s voice (“Dreadful Chapter One” to “Dreadful Chapter Seven”). These pieces are rendered in dialect, always a danger in our politically correct era, and seem overtly copped from John Berryman’s Mr. Bones from the Dream Songs. A typical construction from “Dreadful Chapter Two” reads: “An why come Law git stuck wit such a name / dat leave he always cipher wrong from right– / so much he git a tooth-clench mood to fight?” One can’t help but think of Berryman at his least salient: “Afters eight years, be less dan eight percent, distinguish’ friend, of coloured wif de whites / in de School, in de Souf” (“Dreamsong #60″). These sections are important in rendering the violence, physical and mental, that shrouds Lawrence throughout, but as a parody of the voice of a Southern black, they are disturbing, and more importantly, they clothe Black Damon in greater obscurity at points in which clarity is needed. At the end of the collection, we only know him as a foil to Booth himself, a shadow in blackface and not a being in his own right.

Ultimately, though, Manning’s collection succeeds because the dramatization throughout is unique, the formal experimentation innovative, and Manning’s astute sense of prosody camouflaged enough not to seem flaunted. Reading the collection from start to finish, it becomes clear that there is a narrative progression, however forced, and that in the lines that furrow the Great Field, Booth leaves his lyric self changed. On a literal level, his chief adversary, the violent Mad Daddy expires in the next-to-last poem “A Dream of Soot and Ash” and on a figurative level, in the final poem, “Pilgrims”, Booth is able to provide sanctuary to a multitude of crows, auguring a time where the Field has finally became his material and spiritual home. Some of Manning’s own beliefs can’t help but trickle through these dramatics, and on occasion, as in the poem “Antimatter” when the narrator claims, “He [Booth] cannot believe in a callously random universe, / the spark that ignited the big bang, the wild coagulation of proteins / longing for webbed feet in the puddle,” the curtain is pulled back, the author revealed. In aligning his poetic sensibility with a deep and nuanced spiritual seeking, Manning joins an illustrious group of poets who’ve sought to reveal reality by becoming, in Emerson’s phrase, “a transparent eyeball,” that is nothing, yet sees all, and I will leave the last word to him, in the form of the poem that Merwin claims to have been so taken with in the book’s forward:

Shady Grove

Booth lazes in the spidery orchard watching
a ladybug navigate the back of his hand
as if the sun-freckled territory seems familiar–
how she is like a red grain of creeping joy,
and these apple trees like lichen-clad promontories
poking into the middle air, and the shaggy moss
beneath his head, a shimmering green plain.
Such days come to him like a quivering dove
and he needs no earthly reward for his pains
but this, when his heart becomes a book
of hours and the day becomes its own vessel,
unmoored. Booth wants to tell the pagans
to smash their plastic gods. Have them roll up
their sleeves beneath an apple tree and watch
the spotted angels festoon their heathen wrists.

The next book of poems, Laura-Anne Bosselaar’s Small Gods of Grief is a more familiar construction than Manning’s Southern brand of verbal pinwheels, for Bosselaar adheres to the school of prosy, narrative lyricism that has been derided by some critics for its lack of intellectual heft. For Bosselaar, there is no anxiety of self-revelation, no fear that the depths of the self can only be approached obliquely; rather, Bosselaar takes the more quotidian aspects of her life as song and source material for her poems, finding tremulous joys in domesticity, teasing out the resentment that accompanies a trip to the grocery store or the pretension that encompasses a literary gathering.

Her first poem, “Great Gullet Creek,” is given a section unto itself and that placement seems justified only by fact that it is the longest poem in the collection. It begins with five couplets that set up a scenario: the speaker and a farmer sailing across De Grote Geule (Great Gullet Creak) in Flanders, Belgium. The body of the poem consists of twenty-six quintets that begin with the typically transparent:

Christmas break, 1946. I’m six.
My parents leave me at the Grote Geule farm:
they’re going on a trip to very-far-away again,
the farmers will take care of me–I must be
obedient, and polite.

What follows is a poem yearning for the paragraphs of prose, a description of an episode in a young girl’s life where nothing much happens, where the speaker goes ice skating with a kind Belgian farmer and wishes her parents would never come back. Of course the trappings of the “lyric” are all here: there’s the litany of objects in ones and twos that fill a particular stanza, “On the table, lit by the oil-lamp, / two twigs of licorice wood, a rock of raw sugar, / an orange, two chunks of black bread.”; there’s the materiality of Otherness, of life in another culture:

Many of the details are handled with freshness and tact, and are quite evocative, such as the description of the flavor of halved oranges stuffed with sugar shattered by the farmer’s knife. All told, there is a convincing description of the speaker’s childhood experience with a kind unnamed farmer during a Belgian winter. Nothing more, nothing less.

The straightforwardness of this first poem, this first section, reflects the strength and greater weakness of Small Gods of Grief. Bosselaar is a poet of adequate descriptive and narrative ability but too often, there’s nothing at stake in her work. No urgent force that compels the writer to depict one particular episode instead of another, no wild, linguistic leaps that provide a glimpse into the deeply metaphorical processes of the human imagination. Rather, there are poems about sitting in traffic or watching a man in a community garden, and these suggestions of place rarely transcend the fact that they exist as a trigger for expression. In the aforementioned, “Our Lady of Pity,” the speaker is in her car at 4:10 in the afternoon, and in a typical broad sweep, she sees kids, “who all said I, me, yes, or no at least / ten times today, who came from or went to / somewhere, who listened, or didn’t, / like everyone did or didn’t during this day.” With such a high degree of specificity, who needs adjectives? Later in the poem, the speaker catches a sign that declaims “Pray to the Lady of Pity” and with an indicative attempt at humor, the speaker ruminates, “Pray? For pity? Me? For what?–/ It’s too late in the day to pray for that: / there’s nothing left to redeem, // and I won’t need the Lady’s / pity when I’ll be mass-transited / to the clogged soul-jam up there.” I must admit I wince at the ‘soul-jam’, think reflexively about the funk calcifying between someone’s toes. The poem ends with an attempt to parlay the dead time of sitting in traffic into a spiritual revelation:

I imagine that the ‘destined’ at the end is meant to resonate like a bell-clap at stroke of midnight, enigmatic and steeped in revelation; however, any mystery too easily earned is no longer mysterious and certainly not revelatory.

Other poems in this collection are much more successful. For example, “G.O.D.’s Trucks,” dedicated to the trucking service that has G.O.D. plastered in extra-large letters on their flanks. It stands for Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, though surely the wit of their acronym was plotted to garner more shipping requests. Using this object of highway signification as her starting point, Bosselaar arrives at a more legitimate and convincing spiritual entreaty:

Another piece, The Rat Trinity, skirts the issue of the speaker’s memory of being beaten as a child in the dorms to speak of her fascination with those beady-eyed rodents who made their home in the sewers of Bruges, and how she “loved three in particular–christened / them the Trinity.” How she would pray to this Rat Trinity to “bring me back…into Mother’s / fat, white belly. To crown them / with the trinity // they had hungered for: / a Father, Mother, and from their fusion / not I, but unscorned, chosen: one / divine being–a son.” Here, though the subject matter still feels vaguely familiar, the emotion is earned and the speaker’s disconsolation is rendered in a shimmering exactitude with which the reader can readily empathize.

The poem Filthy Savior is another triumph; ala William Stafford, it recounts a brush with nature apt to turn anyone circumspect. Driving around lost at four a.m., the speaker is

until she almost runs over a gull, which in turn turns her exigent. The bird, caught in plastic netting, is “huge, filthy, shits and pecks,” and crazily resists the speaker’s goodhearted attempts to release it from its captivity. When finally it is released, the gull disappears into the air like “some vague, bleak longing.” Bosselaar’s honesty, here and throughout, is to be admired; she is not afraid to skirt sentiment, to reconstruct the emotional complexities of daily life, to render the strength that comes from persisting in the face of impediment, though too often she has both feet firmly across the line that separates the saccharine from the sacerdotal, confusing them for one and the same.

The chance moments of lyric skill, however, are the exceptions that prove that the very details that make a maker can unmake a reader. What seems absolutely integral and freighted with import in Bosselaar’s mind has little effect on the reader, as in the poem “Memory”, for example, which I quote here in its entirety:

Compare this to a short-short poem by A.R. Ammons, “Their Sex Life”

One failure on
Top of another

I leave it to you to weigh their relative merits and failures. In another poem entitled, “The Pleasures of Hating,” the speaker glibly asserts, “I hate broccoli, chain saws, patchouli, bra- / clasps that draw dents in your back, roadblocks, // men in black kneesocks, sandals and shorts– / I love hating that. Loathe stickers on tomatoes, / jerky, deconstruction, nazis, doilies.” So what? Egg salad makes my stomach turn but is that reason enough to induce a poem? Not to mention the great leveling the list achieves; chainsaws are equal to jerky are equal to Nazis; no gradation is indicated, no deeper analysis provided about the social or psychological mechanisms that might make us hate certain things. Another poem, facilely titled “What I Feel” reveals the speaker’s “shame / for my big hips, those offending / glutei confronting the fashionably slim / women brushing past me on their way in.” Which begs the question, what have we come to expect from our poets? Give me prophecy, give me nerve, I’ll even take self-immolation or Lear-like nonsense, but I’m afraid I must draw the line at offending glutei.

Reading Bosselaar’s poems, I thought of another poet who is an exemplar of the school of narrative lyricism, Marie Howe, and how the latter often hits where the former misses. It’s a matter of intensity, finally, because there is nothing lukewarm about Howe’s evocations. Where Bosselaar petitions the small gods of grief, Howe is the inconsolable, wild-haired goddess of anguish and her words leave an after-image the way heat remains in a coal. That, to me, is the measuring stick of confessional poetry–What is confessed? Is the confession transfigured in the crucible of art? Is there anything necessary about the confession, anything that draws us in expectant, returns us exultant? In the case of Bosselaar’s first book, Small Gods of Grief, I must report back that though plenty is confessed, much of it lacks the urgency or scope needed to redeem the collection.

The final first book at hand is Joshua Mckinney’s Saunter, and with his collection, the arbitrary assemblage of titles under consideration in this review demonstrates the ample range and very different intentions that poets writing in America today reveal. For none of what I’d previously mentioned regarding innovation of form or gradations of confessionalism are applicable to Mckinney’s work. If Manning were Gerhard Richter and Bosselaar James McNeill Whistler, then Mckinney would be Mark Rothko, coolly yet passionately expounding on the same abstract forms, over and over, working towards a purity that could only be gotten at via approximation. Saunter is reminiscent of Jorie Graham’s first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts or Ann Lauterbach’s Before Recollection, some lines from which (“Often I have thought the linear / duplicitous, mapping outer and inner, / showing us core and enclosure / as it helps itself over destiny’s rail.” ["Subject to Change"]) could very well serve as an epigraph to the collection.

The first fifteen poems in Saunter are in the exact same form: two stanzas, eighteen lines composed mainly of two- or three-beats per. The first line of the first poem in the collection, “Disfigured”, gets at Mckinney’s impetus: “Emptied owns escape.” There is no subject, no clear referent, just this near-gnostic phrase that seems to abdicate hollowing out (“emptying”) as a means of liberation (“escape”). The speaker’s intent seems to be identification with, or rather absorption into, the natural world, so that “…stone and flower / and blood as is / not a place, a thing at / all tokens of sound / are as a ladder / disguised.” (“Joinery”). The progression in this poem is emblematic of Mckinney’s technique–phrases are continually unmoored through propulsion, so that line before and line after are hinged together only tenuously, before momentum carries meaning out and past the stasis a reader might like to apply to it. The notion that stones, flowers, and blood are not things at all runs into the notion that all tokens of sound are as a ladder, disguised, and this transformation, if you can call it that, and you can’t really, is not graduated but disjunctive, a leap that’s interested only in staying in the air and not in the ground on either side or in the distance covered.

The last poem of the initial section is the one from which Mckinney gets this collection’s title, and I quote it here in its entirety:

Saunter

The body’s last
evidence, this
actual world
laughing too hard
to write it–at you
with your lunch
in your hair. No-
thing undeceives me
dreaming a man, I

am undeceived in
this actual world
bewildered hill to hill.
The air is the air.
Pain, too, is
the color of matter.
Obedient, I advanced
in attention
I moved no closer.

One rhetorical aspect, recurrent throughout the collection, is fluidity of agency. Is it the “I” who is bewildered hill to hill or is it the actual world? A tautology like “the air is the air,” shines in the mists of abstraction like a beacon–obvious, yes, but somehow in need of expression, if only to emphasize the rift that opens between self and sense of self; all other entities, animate or otherwise, have a one-to-one correspondence between their essence and their existence. It is only humans for whom there is no sure fit. The last three lines of the poem describe the space in which Mckinney hopes to operate, moving ever inwards to achieve a greater realization of the external world, and yet faltering, doomed always to falter, at the threshold of objecthood.

Though there is a villanelle (“No Oasis”) and a quasi-sonnet (“The Law”) in the middle section of Saunter, by and large, it is not manacled to any particular formal constraints, so the poems are freer, more able to breath and to proliferate meaning. One thinks of Francis Ponge in Mckinney’s single-minded desire to get from the nature of things to the root of naming, though Ponge’s diction is much more wide-ranging than Mckinney’s. The final section of the book, Batten, mirrors the first section in that the thirty-five poems share the same form, namely a gutter that breaks their eleven lines in half. The left side of the poem is left-justified and each line begins anew with a capital letter; every other line on the right side of the poem is indented and never begun with a capital letter. This construction provides myriad reading possibilities–one can read straight across horizontally, or read each half down, vertically. The space in the middle serves as a kind of full-stop for the eyes and for the mind, a moment of blankness with which to reflect on Mckinney’s near-epigrammatic constructions, such as “cruel artifice takes strength less than hours,” “a thing that has the will to be is born,” or “sight is an oath where the eye marks a pause in light.”

The problem with Mckinney’s verse is that it is too doggedly self-reflective. Nearly every other poem has some reference to the act of writing; even the geese fly in script. This is the poet’s enterprise, true, but when every line curls in on itself, the poems tend to grow tedious, to lose their characteristic shape, blurring and blending into the rest of the work. In a few places, Mckinney references the installation artist, Robert Smithson, known most famously for the piece Spiral Jetty, a monumental earthwork located in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and I found it useful to think about Saunter in terms of Smithson’s ideas. As Lawrence Alloway notes in his essay Site/Nonsite, “Smithson explicitly aligns geological change with the process of thought…landscape then becomes analogous to the human condition or at least to our communications.” Additionally, in an interview between P.A. Norvell and Smithson, the artist himself claims, “there is the dialectic between inner and outer, closed and open, center and peripheral. It just goes on constantly permuting itself into this endless doubling so that you have the nonsite functioning as a mirror and the site functioning as a reflection.” A nonsite for Smithson would be the trace of a something existing in the natural world represented in a gallery. Similarly, I found it useful to think about Mckinney’s poetics the same way, the language in the book being a nonsite that is a trace of something that existed experientially for the author. Just as the actual language of the poems is continually in the process of being subsumed by other bits of language, the experiences that the language refers to is continually changing and eroding in the author’s mind. By allowing Mckinney this endless doubling, I was more able to accept the monotony of his diction, though it must be said that the relentlessness of his indirection makes the poems difficult to read and nearly impermeable on many occasions.

Regardless, his enterprise, which, as he states in the poem “Optique”, aspires to an end where, “the sum shook free from its figures,” is conceived of with the utmost seriousness in mind. Mckinney is a poet who is absolutely wedded to act of naming, in the hope that he can eventually move past the act into experience itself. Rothko, at the end of his life, eschewed colors to concentrate on canvases of black and white, luminous no longer, but more concentrated in intensity and purpose. It will be interesting to see where Mckinney, who in his first book has already put so much pressure on language as to render his poems nearly monochromatic, goes from here, as the asymptotic point towards which his work reaches is a vast and deep silence from which no word will prove sufficient.[/private]

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Ravi Shankar is a poet, prose writer, and editor who has published work in Poets & Writers, Time Out New York, Paris Review, Massachusetts Review, Gulf Coast, Lit, Crowd, Descant, Indiana Review, Western Humanities Review, Mississippi Review, and Gulf Coast, among others. He has taught literature and writing at Columbia University, Queens College and will be teaching at Central Connecticut State University in the fall. He is the founding editor of the internationally renowned journal of the arts, Drunken Boat, and has participated in panels for the Electronic Literature Organization and Poet's House. He has held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Ragdale, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Recently he helped edit an anthology of Asian American writing for the monthly poetry journal, Big City Lit, in conjunction with the ten-year anniversary of the Asian American Writers Workshop.

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