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Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

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Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Robin Behn

Richard Garcia

John Hennessy

Adrian Matejka

Ayukawa Nobuo

Eunice Odio

Kathryn Rantala

Anna Ross

Mathias Svalina

Larissa Szporluk

Kevin Tsai  

In Spar, the Laws of Poetry Crash

Crash’s Law (Norton & Co., 80 pages) and Spar (University of Iowa Press, 57 pages)
by Karen Volkman  

by Adam L. Dressler

A certain general sadness attends the existence of any bad art, but in the absence of demonstrated talent, this sadness is mild. We know the writer tried their best; they just didn’t have what it takes, and we applaud their efforts with our pity. But what are we to feel toward those failures that are the product of a poet such as Karen Volkman, a nimble, keen, musically gifted wunderkind whose first book, Crash’s Law, was a National Poetry Series selection that stood as a testament to her tremendous talent and control? For the poems of Spar, her second effort, and the recipient of an Iowa Poetry Prize, are so clearly inferior to those of her first book that one almost feels a sense of betrayal, or at least deep-seated disappointment. The poems of Crash’s Law are guided by a lyrical acuity and accuracy whose soundplay is Eliotesque and whose confident, otherworldly declarations are straight out of Plath. And yet Volkman’s own unique voice is present throughout, fusing sound and sense with a metrical agility that lifts us, entranced, from line to line, from powerfully effected objective correlative to startling statement and back again. One of the strongest poems of the book, “Casanova In Love,” showcases Volkman’s mastery of this motion. Here is the poem in full:

     My dainty delinquents
     twitch and fidget in their neat white beds.
     O love I am coming

     up the knotted trellis vine,
     adoring. I sigh and I swoon,
     I seize my lady’s hand — sometimes

     a girlish quiver, sometimes
     a wedding band. I strew
     blanched blossoms on the blossoming thighs.

     The moon’s luminous suitors
     throb and rise. Time stutters, starts
     again — time, time! Who’s this

     drowsing, hair tousled,
     on the pillow? Did I
     forget? It’s true, I keep

     no prizes. I am dapperest
     in debt. Desire’s
     brief white waning is what

     I die for. O breasts! white worlds
     I plunder and divide. In the morning’s
     tumultuous parting, don’t think me

     heartless. Love, it is the sky’s confusion
     that jibes the bruise. Your need
     cannot seduce me: the body

     is my heart. Loss
     can only loose me.
     My hunger is my art.

Here, the power of the poem is fueled by its auditory arsenal, in which we find alliteration—“dainty delinquents,” “blanched blossoms,” “white worlds”; assonance—“twitch and fidget...trellis,” “moon’s luminous suitors,” “drowsing...tousled...pillow”; and full rhymes and off-rhymes—“delinquents...white beds,” “vine...sigh...sometimes...thighs,” “hand...band,” which, along with the meter, become more regular as the poem enters the climax of its stunning conclusion—“Your need / cannot seduce me: the body // is my heart. Loss / can only loose me. / My hunger is my art.” This kind of progression, from the informal to the highly formal, is the modus operandi for the majority of “Crash’s Law,” and is easily perceivable in its recurring tendency to seek the resolution of an ending rhyme—“the nearness we weep for // I stay close to the water, / you stay close to shore.” (“Infernal”); “sternum...learn,” (“The Red Shoes”); “It will / be still” (“The Case”), “in wide morning, leaving wing” (“Regret Lyric”), and so on. This search for, and attainment of, resolution infuses these poems with a strong emotional resonance that is ultimately inseparable from their craft, which bespeaks a heightened intellectual and emotional state of struggle, over which Voklman’s confident voice presides like a spell over otherwise difficult elements.

But while interesting images and sedulous soundplay abound in the poems of Spar as well, the emotional depth is nowhere to be found. Spar clearly represents a deliberate departure from the much more conventional—titled, stanzaic, strongly metrical—poems of its predecessor. The vast majority of Spar consists of prose-poems of one or two paragraphs, in which there is neither narrative nor visible trajectory of thought. From sound to sound, the voice, subdued by the music of its own musings, wanders aimlessly, like a phantom that has forgotten the reason for its endless search. The untitled poem on page 17 is one such ghost:

    August could ask for better, a hectored meadow, a dross of leaves.
Trees are dour in the surfeit side of the year, we are speaking purple to the
plumes, which smudge in yellow and pallid plaits of flail. The outlines
do not hold, the stitched derisions, in summer seepage I am what and it
is we, with my green dress and ticking I am part weed and part machine.
    Labor of morning, to lock the darkness in. Where does the night go,
Ms. Engine, Mr. Mean? Where’s the big-handed washer pures my pie-
lipped Rose-of-Rupture, that grow like strident rumor, this smattered
year? And the brat of limit with her mottled, filthy fist? This is my letter
to losses—swallow it

After the opening’s brief attempt at scene-setting, the project of narrative, along with cohesion, is swiftly abandoned, sent reeling by the phrase “we are speaking purple to the / plumes,” which banks on its alliteration to carry it. But sound alone is not enough, especially when it is so incongruously preceded by an opening that appears to concern itself with at least some hint of narrative and/or emotional consequence. Whence this “we”? Is it meant as an “I” and a “thou,” as the universal we, or the royal we? More importantly, what purpose does the introduction of the pronoun at this point serve? Is it an attempt at heightened intimacy, or a narrowing or concentrating of emotional scope and force? And what exactly does “speaking purple” denote? What the hell are these “plumes”? Even if these were answerable questions, they certainly aren’t very interesting ones, and yet these are precisely the concerns to which the poem’s meanderings will lead any attentive reader. For despite the fractured and distracted non-focus of the poem, we are forced to seek some meaning out of it. If there is no meaning to be had, why bother reading it at all?

Some might argue that no such need for meaning exists, that as ascribers to the common faith of negative capability, we should be able to wean ourselves from the crutch of cohesion, from the petty and pesky task of comprehension on any level that might supercede or underlie the surface of things. But how are we to turn our desire for the removal of doubt on and off, like a switch? How can we be content to move from clear meaning to nebulousness, and back again? How can we be satisfied with such a haphazard path of coherence and incoherence? This dilemma was clearly a concern of the author as well. For just as in “Crash’s Law,” time and again the poems of “Spar” end in rhyme: “exile to in....me to him,” (p. 10); “two-bit sermon—mis- / tress Sum,” (p. 16); “space you must fail in...teach it dim,” (p. 50), etc.

But while these rhymes do serve to signal the consummation of the soundplay, no deep sense of resolution can accompany them because there was no perceivable struggle in their attainment. Unlike the powerful conclusions of Crash’s Law, these endings feel tacked on, dispensable, because there is no sense of anticipation preceding them—as we move disjointedly from impenetrable image to near-narrative to highly elusive logic, all in no particular order, we are constantly being warned against trying to garner any greater sense than sound. Phrases such as “the no-time, the nothing—which birds have swallowed like lucid beads of sight” (p. 19) and “samewise was an infant, and an ingot, and a rend” (p. 46) painfully punish us for any such effort. So, rendered punch-drunk, we are forced into a half-conscious state of tedious non-thought, of taking in poems sound by sound by sound, until they all feel the same, until we drown in the hazy ether of their unstructured ramblings, and struggle hard to keep our eyes and/or the book open.

So why? Is the fatal phenomenon of fame to blame? Has Volkman, carried away by the much-deserved acclaim of Crash’s Law, lost that most vital ability to see the good, and the bad, in her own work? Or, seduced by the assurance that this book might effortlessly ride the tails of her first, has she simply ceased to care about the quality of her work? Is laziness or boredom responsible for this new project to subvert the essential forces of heart and sense to the flimsy and fickle dominion of soundplay? While one cannot be certain, I suspect that neither laziness, nor fame, nor dissatisfaction with previous efforts is the primary reason behind the existence and spectacular failure of Spar. It would seem that the hard-to-define, ever-elusive, exasperatingly ostentatious school of “language poetry” has lured yet another good writer into its feckless fold with promises of unaccountability. A basic cowardice inheres to any attempt at obliquity, and it would appear that Volkman has grown faint of heart. We can only hope that this timidity is temporary, that this great talent will survive her current unfortunate condition to once again produce poems that dare to be understood.

Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. Since then he has ridden the economic wave from dot come to dot gone, and is currently attending the MA program in poetry at Boston University.


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