|Excerpts >Summer 2006|
Kerri Webster. Rowing Through Fog. New American Poets Chapbook Series, The Poetry Society of America. Selected by Carl Phillips.
Reviewed by Elaine Sexton
Chapbooks have recently taken on a luster once reserved for the full-length collection and become the form to watch for the experimental, the single-themed long poem, the emerging poet’s first published work, and the off-beat or in-between collections of established writers. These five collections stand out among numerous recent releases not only for the quality of the writing, on the rise for chapbooks, but also for the range of voices they represent.
Kerri Webster offers a sophisticated new voice in Rowing Through Fog, selected and introduced by Carl Phillips for the Poetry Society of America’s new chapbook series. Webster self-consciously invents an inner landscape by reworking the surface of things, employing both the timeless effort to name, and the artist’s effort to create through naming. The poem, “Lexicon,” signals this preoccupation. Here, the repetition of variations of the phrase – “there is” – creates an irregular, patterned music that forecasts a discursive narrative thread: “There’s a word for sadness that dwells in the small of the back . . .” “there is no word for release,” “There is no gazelle,” “there’s a phrase for absence gullied just short of reckoning . . .” Rarely has losing one’s bearings in a sequence of poems (as with “fog”) summoned such pleasure. Eight prose poems, every other piece in the collection, anchor the book. Each takes as a title a hotel name: “Hotel Consumptive,” “Hotel Eidetic,” “Hotel Voluptuary.” They sing of the body animated, degraded, celebrated. In “Hotel Quetzalcoatl,” the speaker asks “What desire doesn’t seem as of the distance across a sea? The way skin conjoins to demigod (half bestiary) (half reliquary).” A mystery rests at the dark heart of this carefully-shaped work, one that starts with a ferry boat wreck, invoking Arthur Dove’s 1931 painting, and remains a mystery to the end. With so much to savor, it’s easy to relinquish the will to make literal sense of these poems and consider, instead, the sensations Webster drafts into action with words like effluvia, alluvial. Webster’s language, lyricism, distinctive metaphors, and symbolism provoke both pleasures and disturbances in this seamless chapbook collection.
In the introduction to A Little Anthology of Surrealist Poems, a work he completed as a Columbia University undergraduate in 1968, Paul Auster writes, “Translation, then, was more than just a literary exercise. It was a first step toward breaking free of the shackles of myself, of overcoming my own ignorance. You must change your life. Perhaps. Back then, it was more a question of searching for a life, of trying to invent a life I could believe in . . . “ Auster selected nine formidable artists to translate from the French including André Breton and Paul Éluard. Some of the charm of reading these twenty-five poems, re-published by Rain Taxi, may be in tasting the selections made by the young Auster: part period piece and part refresher course in the surrealists’ trademark sleight of hand. Examples include Robert Desnos’s use of nouns as verbs as in: “I gull,” “her glance that rivered toward me,” “You pitch-pine with a pretty vase,” “the stairway that libraries.” We think of grammar as place holders for meaning, our scaffolding to understanding. Desnos dismantles the grammatical givens to recreate a language for a made-up world. “Black Veins,” by Hans Arp, closes the collection with “my poor dreams have lost their wings/my poor dreams have lost their flames/they tie their elbows/to the casket of my heart/and dream of gray crumbs.” Arp’s inclusion reminds us of the surrealist synergy between text and image – visual artists writing poems, poets making art. Over thirty-five years after their first publication (1972, Siamese Banana Press, NY) we, like Auster, may find a timely political resonance in the work of these writers. Consider, for example, this line by Éluard: “I speak the truth without saying it.”
Sue Carnahan’s Auto Repair serves as a shrewd example of the chapbook as singled-themed venue, twenty-five pages of titled fragments and very short lyrics. With no contents page, the reader steps right into “Grease,” a five-line poem that closes: “When the starter falls it is heavy, I should prepare but I never quite/can, it thumps my chest like a sneeze.” The “auto” (didact) in “Auto Repair” presents an extended metaphor for the speaker’s efforts to fix a failing marriage. Self-repair threads her observations through smaller and smaller openings, creating a taut narrative, subtly told through textual metaphors. Carnahan’s tone, both matter-of-fact and funny coupled with the speaker’s remove, especially at dramatic moments, is both compelling and quelling. Something of Louise Glück’s signature bite echoes through Carnahan’s quiet revelations: the intimate details, the lean naked “truths” of two highly idiosyncratic characters. In “Doctors,” the wife speaks of the husband: “He once made a dentist X-ray his toe instead of his teeth.” In “Foot-pounds,” she considers their marriage: “To prevent over-staying look at the ratio of good years to bad./To prevent over-tightening use a torque wrench.” These poems must be read as one piece. They consistently butt up against what I expect to hear with enough regularity that this reader feels pinched and pushed from beginning to end. There’s nothing “traditional” about these poems, nor this poet. Her toying with language and ideas invites us to read and re-read “Auto Repair,” once for the story, once for the craft, and once for the pleasure of experiencing the marriage of the two.
The Making of Collateral Beauty, Mark Yakich’s collection of prose poems from Tupelo Press, joins Sue Carnahan and Kelli Webster’s chapbooks, as an inventive and original use of the short collection. Yakich’s meta-narrative, all prose poems, about what I originally took to be an imaginary, book, is smart and ambitious. What starts out as fresh and innovative, however, in terms of language, objectives, and surrealist settings, gradually becomes irritating, the way a witty conversationalist or prankster is in turn – surprising, disruptive, beguiling, then predictable. If the first few pieces didn’t present this reader with such sharp expectations, I would probably be more forgiving when they fail to deliver. In fairness to Yakich, he does warn the reader with “A Note on the Notes,” of his unflagging tendency toward too muchness and self-regard: “None of these notes is necessary to be entertained, instructed, or mauled by the apodictic poems of Mr. Yakich’s book Unrelated Individuals Form a Group, Waiting to Cross. None of these notes is necessary, unless you are a native German speaker ....” and on and on. It turns out the author is referencing his actual first book, published in 2003, and presumes quite a lot. Still, who isn’t seduced by a punster who sends us to the dictionary, whose voice is playful and clever? Yakich’s prose poems faintly echo the humor and imagination of Charles Simic, the master of that form, but lack the necessary insight to give them sway.
Judith Valente’s Inventing An Alphabet follows a more conventional shape than the others and is the one chapbook that feels most like a full-length collection. In contrast to Mark Yakich’s chapbook, these poems find a perfect pitch through irony and eros, gaining momentum and gravity from beginning to end. With references to “Father Mike,” “miracles,” and “Apostle’s Creed,” I admit I thought I knew what to expect. (I’m a writer who put, in a poem, a statue of the Virgin Mary in the trunk of a car to take to the dump.) Thus, for Valente, a person of faith, to overcome a faith-based bias on my part, speaks volumes for how she transcends subject matter with startling craft and intellectual rigor, remarkable for a debut collection. The fifteen poems read as one lyric, elegiac conversation, though each stands very well alone. Tiered in various stanza shapes, these poems surprise with inventive line breaks, smart and unassailable. “Winter Journal,” one of the bleakest, creates the most fragmentation: “These days even the stars seem poisoned.” The spacing (hers) stutters along with the thinking behind it. The poem ends:
There once was a man
They said he could not bear to hear the word Spring.
Valente’s tone, both intimate and open throughout, hints at Rilke’s, a voice that is “present” with “presence.” The dead – preparing their bodies, contemplating their perceptions, writing to them – frame a surprising, expanding arc. More than once while reading Inventing An Alphabet, I thought, this is a collection “wasted” on a chapbook, a venue that might not get these poems and this writer the attention they deserve. The title poem, a tour de force of found phrases, encrypted with popular culture and history, shows Valente’s evident and abiding interest in what happens when you take the time to “harvest a word.”