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Needto Know



Issue9: The Missing Body

Issue8: The Lily

Issue7: Passages

Issue6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Quan Barry

Cal Bedient

Joshua Bell

Nadia Colburn

Carolina Ebeid

Odysseas Elytis

Nathalie Handal

Connie Hershey

Timothy Liu

Drago Stambuk

Franz Wright

The Sun Also Rises

by Peter Richards  

73 pages. Verse Press

by Joyelle McSweeney

This reader will not presume to discourse on the nature of sightlines from holes in the ground, even for the laudable purposes of metaphor. Moreover, in fine poetic tradition, Peter Richards finds not limit but license in the confines of his oubliette. From his presumably self-imposed containment in this circular, imagined space, Richards is able to manipulate the relative size of appearing and departing figures by efforts so tiny as a squint of the eye or the pinch of two fingers shut around the moon.

The poems of Oubliette visit and revisit speakers who remain figuratively or literally earthbound. Rather than engineer false salvations, Richards draws on his nutshell-autocracy to work up a ready allegory and elevate to allegorical status stuff that used to just muck around as nouns. In the book’s final and largest (though not longest) poem, “Dawn,” the landscape is crowded with not just the title party but also “Nil,” “Abduction,” “Ellipsis,” “Deference,” “Wheel,” and “Crib.” No system of meaning obtains, however, and these figures, as well as the speaker’s indistinguishable companions, cycle out of the poem. The speaker, without other subject, must pull all the allegorical weight of the poem onto himself:

              I’m Dawn, moving up on a list of fallen things.
              I don’t want to be dark, the dark that concedes,

     and I beg to differ from the sly part of gentle.
              I beg for the day I rise in the morning.

The upsurge here is attractive, but the swaggering rhythm and confident “I-I-I” of these lines belie their assertions of humility and lend a false note to the final, self-abnegating declaration of the poem, “Mine is a poor light/and glad to be//continuing.”

If the strength of Richards’ music sometimes undercuts his speakers’ claims of passivity and weakness, it also produces much of beauty. The most solidly gorgeous passages come when a palpable pressure seems to push in on our trapped speaker, as in “The Bird Maker’s Last”:

     For if the Lord wishes me to be a bird
     let his Majesty retract the birds
     and be pleased to recall my obedience
     and the haste I took in his service.

The tidy testimonial cadence is kicked slant by the unusual use of “retract,” the not-quite-Quakerish “haste,” and the quirky theological supposition of the first line. The near rhymes of the final syllables of ‘obedience’ and ‘service’ lend a prayerlike diminuendo that seems unforced. The strange grace of this poem is only lightly marred by the false note of special language struck in its final lines: “It must be Hesitation—a long time/when no one occurs.”

Oubliette achieves success when, as in the passage above, Richards’ fine writing convinces us of the integrity of his visions. Slighter poems, such as “The Moon is a Moon,” a poem that strives only to debunk conventional moon imagery, come off as exercise. Elsewhere, nimble and lovely language cannot shore up what seems like arbitrary, even Poetic, speculation, as in “Nettles”: “How many javelins blunted in violet/pierce open the spheres relieved of their dead?” In what seems like an incongruously novice error, two lines of the nine-line poem “Siphons” are dedicated to the repetition of a single, tenuous image: “Skin on a mountain embarking for sea/The skin on a mountain.”

At other moments, Richards insists on stretching his poems on Ideas that run the language past its mark. The lovely “Unable” picks its way ambivalently through images of fountains and birds to arrive at the exquisite “When I drank from these waters/I drank from my own face—//and an endless wet bird/rose from my throat,” only to hammer the bird useless by concluding “at once wingless/and unable to sing.”

Richards’ weaker choices read like crimes of the poet against his own considerable talent; in this respect, reading Richards can be as maddening as reading early Yeats. This is not faint praise, and the thunderous rising of blurb-clouds off this book suggests an identification with Richards by a wide range of first-rate poets. Is Richards, then, that rare bird, a poet’s poet? Oubliette is a promisingly frustrating book.

Joyelle McSweeney's first book, The Red Bird, won the Fence Modern Poets Series 2001 and is available from FenceBooks. She lives in Chicago.