Nothing in Excess and Decorum as its Own Reward

Now the Green Blade Rises by Elizabeth Spires. W. W. Norton and Co., 2004. $12.95.

As Reviewed By: James Rother

Since 1981, when her first collection of poems, Globe (1981), made her name a watchword for serenity and poise, Elizabeth Spires has seen her body of work not just praised, but held up as a role model for other poets. Frequently mentioned by critics is her impressive ability to moderate as well as modulate her poetic voice without lowering anything but the decibel count. In the three volumes that followed Globe—Swan’s Island (1985), Annonciade (1989) and Worldling (1995)—neatly turned accentual verse, mostly rounded off into cadences, dominated; but they were cadences in which subtle transformations reserved the right to extend themselves via enjambment into conceits of double-edged metamorphosis. An ensolacing master narrative, at times almost complacent-seeming, would suddenly give way to whiplashes of emotion and roil a surface the unflappable self-composure of which had earlier suggested an island of level-headedness in an archipelago of Alice Notley-esque fear factors. What Spires tended to write about—given that writing verse with a subject is now taken as a sign of nostalgia for that time when Frost in the air meant spring in one’s poetic stride—confirmed the distinctly gemütlich underside to her poetry—its Donald Hallishness, if you like—trumpeting nothing in excess and decorum as its own reward. (Appropriately, “The Cabin,” Spires’s proem to her newest volume, Now the Green Blade Rises, eulogizes Robert Frost’s rural redoubt in Ripton, Vermont, with its stone-slab bench, “old black phone” and pencil sharpener recalling other schoolrooms than his long graduated to oblivion.)[private]

Not that any of this necessarily makes for dullness or that constipated feeling that verse undeflectably on track so readily conveys. Though Spires might favor the long shadow over the nettled sunbeam in her prolusions, she remains in virtually every sense a focused poet given neither to trafficking in recycled star-gazing like a flibbertigibbet nor to sifting arrière pensées in the manner of Gray’s “Elegy” like some sententious sentimentalist. But a single theme courses through Now the Green Blade Rises, rumbling like thunder over cumulonimbus cloudbanks, and it is that of loss cutting across a daughter’s rites of memory of her mother’s recent death. What sticks in her craw—and demands release into verse—is the knowledge—at times overwhelming, at others merely numbing—that the horrendous chosenness of being a survivor means being offered the stick of grief without the carrot of genuine election to make it go down easier.

To stand very still and not
to cry out as the afternoon darkens,
and the ground steams, and the sound
of running snowmelt breaks the silence.
To feel the passing of things you cannot
touch that touch you with their being . . .

(“The Daughter of Snow”)

Spires’s concern with the “forms of loss” is not of the sort that emerges in John Ashbery’s lengthy envoi to his mother, Flow Chart, but rather as might reveal itself in a double-entry ledger in which columns of expenditures vie with repositories of resource which, though renewable, invariably dwindle into accounts payable. Or, is it possibly the reverse—expenditures vying with accounts receivable which, though ever receding to a vanishing point, somehow always prove renewable? To give this screw one last turn, it might well be “neither one, nor the two together,” as that splendid pleader of limit cases, Wallace Stevens, so memorably puts it. Now the Green Blade Rises leaves the reader to cut whatever swath he or she likes, with whichever version of the Great Leveler’s scythe choice dictates. Spires has other gleanables to harvest, and for her, the wheat of nicety and chaff of extravagance are but furbelows to trick out the metaphors poets trade on but almost never cash in, except perhaps in those moralizing poems Robert Frost (and his ilk) pretended to write.

Still, while occasions do arise when Spires’s lures suffice, or nearly so, to bring the Great Bear—or Bugbear—out of hiding (not always as or when the poet intends), this new book achieves considerably more than the merely repetitive minimalism that poem-cycles about the death of a loved one all too often content themselves with. All is done with an openness to surprise that allows the discontinuities of form to emerge where they must and alter cases where dropped stitches are unavoidable. This is particularly refreshing to discover in fresh work by a poet not so long ago thought hidebound by pre-‘80s notions of a serious poem’s proper look and feel. Quite the contrary, the stages of Spires’s accession to the lime tree bower Coleridge held a prison and which the author of Now the Green Blade Rises sees as the sole granting agency of her parole progress from the calmly traditional unleaving of bereavement’s garland, as in “White Curtain”—

The white curtain, sheer
as a soul, lifting in the wind.
As if a hand, unthinking hand,
disturbed its calm repose.

It fluttered and rose.
Fluttered and rose.
Or did it twist in mortal
agony? I didn’t know. . . .

—to the wrenching clamor of hard knocks applied, as in “Anamnesis,” with full Dickinsonian torque:

When we meet again without bodies,
meet in the grave’s cold bed,
when, fingerbone to fingerbone,
we touch, will time be frozen forever,
or sun on as it always has,
a stream neither fast nor slow?

When, our faces gone, we speak
through the softness of moss,
through crumbling moss-soft lips,
will our words unsay themselves,
or will our voices meet again
in rising recognition?

—to, having come full circle, that less than sacred grove where, under death’s lowering glance, the way of the scavenger is acknowledged so that when self-filed charges of insufficient grief are brought, the full portion of crow can be served up and eaten. To wit, “Bruise”:

All black, a hard dark
spot, it sits in the tree’s
bare arms. Caw! Caw!
it calls to no one.
Again, too rude: Caw!
The truth is out:
it eats dead things.
It knows that want
can make, unmake
a world as much as love,
love’s awful opposite.
And so, once more,
the terrible syllable:
Caw! And then it lifts
its wings and flies
into a world diffuse,
green, and blameless,
leaving a bright spot
of nothing where it sat.
One oily feather
in slow free fall,
a bruised blue-black
is all that’s left.
But still I hear it: Caw!
An ugly crow perched
in the charred chest
has left, knowing,
what does it know?
That the word
at the bottom of
the world is black.
I will not say it,
but pray that crow
not come back.

Less elegant moments muscle their way in too, as when the compass of Spires’s grief is jarred out of kilter by near-mawkishness or the Whitmanian optimist conspires with the hymnist of Brahms’s German Requiem to pass off as bridal what anyone with a lick of sense would instantly unpack as bridle:

I walked in the waist-high grass
where a million blades
sang in green cacophony.
Too many voices sang.
And in the din, I thought,
We are as grass,
as simple as grass,
our voices will be lost,
and all things pass . . .

Though not prone to accepting easy answers where the practicum of death rears its period, Spires sometimes settles for the easy question and thus blurs the hard-earned distinction between that merely posing as the truth and that which merely is awarded as a trophy for having crossed the finish line in some Pindaric marathon of suffering or other. Her book’s valedictory poem “’In Heaven It Is Always Autumn,’” with its titular homage to Donne, could be faulted with having left an impression of sincerity too blithely registered—or to carry the game back to Donne himself, a version of “the shadow of the impure motive” that T. S. Eliot detected in that poet-divine’s sermons but failed to find in those of his more circumspect contemporary in Christ, Lancelot Andrewes, Shadows there are cast aplenty in Now the Green Blade Rises, but none of them, one ventures to say, bears that subfusc hallmark of light ostentatiously retracted so that the poet’s personal darkness might seem the more visible thereby. Roland Barthes, in the less formal medium of prose, surmounted via the obliquity of an essay ostensibly concerned with photography but more tellingly concerned with the recent death of his mother, the temptation to upstage the mourned with a tomb too self-regardingly elected. Camera Lucida, Barthes’s last published testament before his death in 1980, anticipates in a consolidating passage much of the argument broached Now the Green Blade Rises by elucidating, in camera, the encroaching calculus of mortality without rehearsing its differentials before an intricately wrought trellis of filial pieties:

. . . In Brecht, by a reversal I used to admire a good deal, it is the son who (politically) educates the mother; yet I never educated my mother, never converted her to anything at all; in a sense I never “spoke” to her, never “discoursed” in her presence, for her; we supposed, without saying anything of the kind to each other, that the frivolous insignificance of language, the suspension of images must be the very space of love, its music. Ultimately I experienced her, strong as she had been, my inner law, as my feminine child. Which was my way of resolving Death. If, as so many philosophers have said, Death is the harsh victory of the race, if the particular dies for the satisfaction of the universal, if after having been reproduced as other than himself, the individual dies, having thereby denied and transcended himself, I who had not been procreated, I had, in her very illness, engendered my mother. Once she was dead I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the progress of the superior Life Force (the race, the species). My particularity could never again universalize itself (unless, utopically, by writing, whose project henceforth would become the unique goal of my life). From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death. (Translated by Richard Howard.)

Still, the poems in this collection do manage to occupy the bed assigned them with elegance and decorum and that is fitting enough to render the use of italics by Spires unexceptionable as an echo chamber for the contemplation of how Heaven catches us among the leavings of its perpetual autumn:

What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through the dark earth? What made us
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?. . .

Ah, as one of the tramps in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is wont to exclaim: “The old questions, the old answers—there’s nothing like them.” Quite; and the nothing that comes of uttering them distractedly or in expectation of nothing but their turning up again and again like the bad pennies they are is often all that stands in times of pain and loss between us and utter nihilism. Elizabeth Spires knows this and lets the common grass of renewal echo its “green cacophony” as it will. In her often moving dance of the hours which open mind-numbingly onto days, weeks and even months of mourning, not a foot is put wrong. If nothing else, the achievement of Now the Green Blade Rises remains a tilt with near-crippling pathos in which civility triumphs if only for a time over the rudeness of mortality. Though Spires’s style might not rise to the searing heights of A Season in Hell’s third-degree sublimity, there’s no reason why her spell in Purgatory should be held to standards set by a Dante or a Rimbaud. Her labile, though never hysterical, way with loss will profit any reader electing to stray amid its disclosures. Its sage counsel that if only humanity can meet deprivation head on, hope is on the way, surely emerges as a lot more inspiring than in the debased Kerry-for-President campaign version currently making the rounds as an election year bromide. Spires’s book is a keeper for those times when hell beckons, heaven forfends, and an Oprah moment just won’t do.[/private]

About James Rother

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *