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Book Review

Rifraff
By Stephen Cushman (Lousiana State University Press, 2011)
A Walk in Victoria’s Secret
By Kate Daniels (Lousiana State University Press, 2011)
Bone Fires: New & Selected
By Mark Jarman (Sarbande Books, 2011)
Every Riven Things
By Christian Wiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

 

CENTRAL TO MOST SPIRITUAL, personal, or religious beliefs—whether one of what Gore Vidal called the three “sky-god” faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) or a devotion to the Grateful Dead—is some notion of the road, the path, the Way. The journey can be literal, as in a traditional pilgrimage or acid-fueled road trip, or it can be ethical, moral, internal, existential. We speak of the Quaker Way, the Way of Shinto, the middle path of Dharma, the Way of the Cross, the “Tao” of Taoism, the Dō associated with certain Japanese spiritual and martial disciplines. We prepare a path in the wilderness. We walk in the shoes of our brothers and sisters. We walk with God. We trace the intricacies of labyrinths. We cross the country, circumnavigate the globe, and climb mountains, seeking enlightenment. We move on four legs in the morning, two at noon, three in the evening. Even twelve-step programs borrow the trope of walking, of making one’s way, one day at a time.

In a famous essay, “A Poem is a Walk,” the poet A.R. Ammons posits several, well, ways in which poems themselves resemble perambulations. Poems, like walks, he says, make use of the whole body and mind; each is unreproducable, and most involve turns and a return. Each possesses a movement or motion peculiar to its maker. “Poets,” Ammons writes, “not only do a lot of walking but talk about it in their poems: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud,’ ‘Now I out walking,’ and ‘Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day.’ [And] many of them suggest that both the real and the fictive walk are externalizations of an inward seeking. The walk magnified is the journey, and probably no figure has been used more often than the journey for both the structure and concern of an interior seeking.”

Four recent books of poetry concern themselves with spiritual travel, a word—not surprising to anyone traversing what John Keats called the “vale of soul-making”—related to travail: pain, exertion, difficulty, suffering. Each collection implies and enacts a distinct journey that reverberates not linearly but dynamically across the precincts of Eros, faith, family, illness, grief, politics, and the transformative realm of poetry itself.

§

Riffraff is the fourth poetry collection by Stephen Cushman, whose work has always explored what he calls in an earlier book “the ordination in the ordinary.” Like the shards and scraps implied by the title, the poems in Riffraff tend to be short, compressed lyrics—only two of the sixty-seven extend beyond a page in length—and the book has the feel of a breviary: part petition, part thanksgiving, part hymn, part litany, part collect, part weather and trail guide, part Baedeker for navigating midlife (“high noon in autumn”), including its pit stops of late yearning, familial loss, disillusionment, and the imperatives of the aging body.

On one level, Cushman is obsessed with the “big” journey, the arc of our mortal coil, but he never foregrounds his own drama, as this modest yet potent poem “The Story of My Life” attests:

light hair
dark hair
light hair

But one gets the feeling that the speakers in these poems do a lot of literal walking, as well, seeking meaning in woods, up and down mountains, along rocky shores, through graveyards, beside creeks and oceans, across and between islands, into and out of other countries. And because Cushman’s travelers don’t miss much, the poems, accessible as they are, never shirk complexity, as in “Dark Meat,” a one-sentence prayer which opens the book:

Would that I could
in everything give thanks,

wishy-washy overcast
and succoring sun alike,

in inmates’ eyes that miss the sky
something awful, something fierce,

just as much as in chance earshot
of a hawk that scrapes said sky with its cry:

would that it were so easy to find
the sacred in the massacred,

that no oh dear, alas, alack
here be heard.

Finding the “sacred in the massacred” is one chief engine of this book, which takes on, among other things, all manner of hypocrisy, a father’s Parkinson’s disease, the premature death of a young neighbor, and the devastation of wars past and present with an awareness that “After the bombings it’s hard to hear / any seduction in the sound of sirens / harrowing streets sapped of traffic, // as though this weekday, fed up with its workload, / had suddenly quit to become a sabbath” (from “After the Bombings”). One way Cushman finds his “way” to a holy, if qualified, redemption is in the acoustical somatics and revelations of language itself, as in the fittingly titled “A Way with Words,” which manages both to expose the prevarication in much critical jargon and arrive at an epiphanic moment of ardently articulated male desire:

When you told me it wasn’t the shell of a scallop
I brought you from the seashore, but the way I said
I brought you the shell of a scallop from the seashore
in a standard syntactic pattern, which by idealizing
clarity, transparency, and direct communication
operates complicitly with mass commodity culture
and subliminally rebroadcasts the social structure
while retreating into a realm of exalted subjectivity,

I felt like a steaming pile of fox scat
or someone who’d eaten a bushel of scallions
and forgotten to brush his teeth, and I wished
for a freshly sharpened scalpel to free me from scandal
without leaving a scar before too much more
of my scalp shines through a scarcity of hair
I share with scarecrows, who have never scanned
the fleshscape of your scapula or kissed it so much
you had nothing to say.

In this poem, Cushman’s jones for the lexicon (“A Way with Words” is another mischievously controlled one-sentence poem trellised over seventeen lines) allows him to make meaning rise up out of the matrix of a wiseacre frolic on the “s” and “c” pages of a dictionary. An adept at poetic form, a master of rhyme and of what Heaney called the “binding secret” between words, Cushman forges poems that are so exceptionally well constructed that they almost beg to be memorized. “Beside the Point,” for example, which begins, “The sky has never won a prize, / The clouds have no careers. / The rainbow doesn’t say my work, / thank goodness,” or the ecstatic “Taste the Fresh Juice of the Pomegranates” (“I shall see you in your heat, / and you will see me in your heat, / and I shall see myself in your heat, / and you will see yourself in me in your heat, / that I may resemble you in your heat, / and you resemble me in your heat, / and my heat be your heat, / and your heat be my heat….”) should be part of a new hymnal. Language—its riff and raff—is the real adventure of this collection. In “Near Nora,” a poem that could be addressed as much to a god or goddess as to a human lover, Cushman writes:

All domes lead to Rome,
the Pantheon’s compression ring,
as all breasts bared beside the sea,
where Romans built on Phoenician leavings,
lead to thee.

Cushman is a poet, then, of intelligent, vernacular faith, humility, humor (a rare mix in contemporary poetry), who walks his talk, and talks his walk, wisely.

§

The title of Kate Daniels’s A Walk in Victoria’s Secret , her fourth poetry collection, lets us know from the get-go that this book will involve a venturing forth, an intention she reinforces with an epigraph from Rousseau’s The Reveries of the Solitary Walker: “Having, then, formed the project of describing the habitual state of my soul in the strangest position in which a mortal could ever find himself, I saw no simpler and surer way to carry out this enterprise than to keep a faithful record of my solitary walks and of the reveries which fill them when I leave my head entirely free and let my ideas follow their bent without resistance or constraint.” The title poem, which opens the book, is a Whitmanian, peripatetic, self-conscious and by turns serious, playful, and ironic tour of the speaker’s psyche at mid-life, a wild ride of a riff on breasts, nurturing, feminism, motherhood, forgiveness, and lingerie. We learn among many things that Victoria is the name of the speaker’s mother, a woman with many repressions and ambivalent feelings about motherhood; “A Walk in Victoria’s Secret” suggests that the book will be a walk, not necessarily chronological, through one woman’s life, from her earliest memories into early middle age. “All this corporeality keeps conjuring my mother,” Daniels says in “The Pedicure,” a poem in which tending to the body, and to the hard-working feet in particular, becomes a way to “shave off the rage of the workers, the fear of the victims, / the shame of the survivors…my lost eros / …the scourge / of oedipal envy that still carries a bite.” It is a journey taken in and through a woman’s body politic.

And as the “past unrolls / like fragile scrolls of text, almost illegible with overlapping lines / of script,” the reader sees that the purpose of this movement through the stations of the speaker’s past is no small part a matter of redress, a making of amends. Addressed are the speaker’s lower-middle-class southern family, of whom she has grown ashamed, the one black girl who desegregated her childhood school (“From the beginning, then, there were always two: me and not-me,” she writes in “Autobiography of a White Girl Raised in the South”), an African American friend from college to whom she could not fully express the extent of her desire, a cantankerous man she attended as a nurse’s assistant at the moment of his death, an ex-husband, the girl she herself was once was who did not feel worthy of love.

But for all of the movement of these poems (“where we look / to find the early life events that explicate the later complications / of the story’s central plot”), it is the moments and images that snag the speaker, pull her out of time, or make her wonder how she has spent or wasted it, that provide complex epiphany. In “Shampoo Girl,” for example, a poem that evokes Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” the speaker wonders how, on “each Saturday of 1968 and ’69 / in Winot’s House of Beauty,” she could have spent her time washing heads as villages in Vietnam burned, “the war raged, the president lied, and 55,000 lay down / beneath the black wall and never rose to chastise me.” In a poem about modeling nude for an art class, the speaker confesses that “I installed myself inside that mental space / where I had hidden as a child when the world / could be aborted no other way.” Walking the grounds of her university, a younger speaker being versed in critical theory and “evolving philosophies” is thrown out of orbit by the mangled, reconstituted face of a classmate who tried to commit suicide, failed, and returned to school: “When someone in a class on Latin / prosody blurted shotgun face, we hunkered down / inside those brief beats he called amphimacer. / They stalled us on the image and drove our minds away / from narrative.”

A miracle, Thomas Pynchon suggests in The Crying of Lot 49, is the intrusion of one world into another. Daniels’s is a restless, empathetic sensibility (“my mother always said I thought about more than was healthy” she writes in “The Noise of the Jews”), and it is the relentless, somatically charged meditation in this collection that is its sojourn and its destination, as in the conclusion of “Scar,” a poem about a daughter’s injury:

The fact that I still sneak in like some pervert
To my daughter’s bedside and peel back the cover
And lift the gown and hunker down inside a sacred moment
Of healed skin and human skill won’t be held against me
Surely. I pray there, my fingers tracing the raised nub
Of once-ruptured skin, my stomach bottoming out,
My mind still raving with the images of that evening, refusing
To relinquish even one detail of the night the Almighty
Hung back, masquerading as a dark deity, a complicated god
Who would hold a small child hostage and torture her mother.
Now it will take a long time to fasten him back where he belongs
—the way we falter screwing in a light bulb in the dark, panicked
And visionless, the glass globe turning uselessly in our hand,
The tin rind of the socket refusing to thread, and wondering
What we will see, and who will be there beside us
In the dark when the light finally returns.
It is in these “stalled” moments of deep relationship that Daniels’s hope defines itself.

§

Any “new and selected” edition of a poet’s work implies by its very nature a foray, the temporal arc of a poet’s career. Mark Jarman’s Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems spans over thirty years and includes, in addition to new poems, material from eight books, beginning with North Sea (1978). The myriad gifts of this gathering of poems confirm that Jarman is one of America’s most distinct and important voices, and prove that it is possible to sustain an original style over a long career (in Jarman’s case, an understated, wry, perspicacious, darkly complicated and formal engagement with belief and unbelief) while avoiding self-parody or a falling off of vision. And perhaps most among these four poets, Jarman, the son of missionaries, takes the road, the quest, as his central symbol. “What am I looking for?” the poet asks in “The City in the Sea,” a question whose answer the poem later posits might be “two words… Your Soul.”

Jarman, in fact, chooses to open his book with a road. The “lobby poem” or frontispiece, “How My Sister, My Mother, and I Still Travel down Balwearie Road,” which first appeared as a broadside in 1991, begins: “In a night where ice and darkness have made a pact, the road appears.” It’s clear to the reader that the speaker intends us to see this road as more than a literal path. It has “found its way under trees whose branches, carved from anthracite, / Smudge out the stars,” and it is “far, far north, where the dead night keeps / Its compacts with darkness, with cold, with trees and stars that agree to die.” And yet, despite the fact that this road spells out the promise of the terminal sentence of our mortality:

Through the darkness come a boy and girl, and a woman, in scarves and cloth coats.
They have broken the boundaries of time and slide out of the night, laughing
Then wait where the road ends for the bus, two tiers of light and warmth, which comes to take them home.
It is still cold, still dark, just as I said, and late. But not as late as I thought.

That last line—It is still cold, still dark, just as I said, and late. But not as late as I thought—could be a mantra for our speaker, whose journey we trace from the poet’s childhood (“when a pastor’s family from California / Began its sojourn. Mid-century Scotland. / Ah, the twentieth century, the last century now, / Yet still attached, still holding on” from “The Wee Spider”) into middle age. In deft sonnets, haiku, blank verse, free verse, Jarman pitches the essential loneliness of human existence (“So many of us want our solitude. / It could be that desire is our wildness” he writes in “Your Neighbor as Yourself”) with motions of history and event (“You want a placid life,” he writes in “Interesting Times,” “find another planet. This one is occupied with the story’s arc”). Bearing out Ammons’s point that each walk is unique, Jarman’s speakers set out with their doubt and their longing (“Who wouldn’t want in the cool of the day to walk / With one who knew everything about you, / More even than you knew?”), without any expectation of an answer (“Let us think of God as a lover / Who never calls, / Whose pleasure in us is aroused / In unrepeatable ways”), but with a kind of faith that the particular details revealed on each particular walk themselves comprise kind of response, as in these lines from “Canticle”:

Beautiful pattern of change, cyclical as blood,
The axle pivots, the planet wanders.

The moon comes back and leaves, a total story or slice
Of life, shining with meaning, like a life.

    .        .        .        .        .        .

Look at it happen again, always in a new pattern:
Famine again, war, after the odd peace.

Habit, the great deadener, narrows our affections
To one face, reappearing in the mirror.

Look at it happen again, always for the first time:
Death of the father, the mother, absolute.

No way to bring them back, except to become them.
Tragic reenactment, beautiful repetition.

Whether evoking baseball, the Supremes, his family, surfing, Holy Week, or Curtis Mayfield, Jarman’s peripatetic poems make of their formal motions a kind of worship. As he writes in “As Close as Breathing”

If I write down the day I see the first swift
(Never the same day but always April),
It’s not a prayer, though it may count as one.

The reader is heartened by the bonfire, the heaped and ignited memories assembled here that can make, as the title poem suggests, even the “most terrifying event—/ Auto-da-fé, crucifixion, choose one—a celebration.”

§

That the biblical Adam never inhabited a child’s body suggests not only an implacable nostalgia but offers a lens into Christian Wiman’s third collection of poems, Every Riven Thing. His speaker is an exiled, ecstatic desert-father child-man god-hungry namer, a seeker in possession of an incendiary soul, a wild questing heart, a capacity for revolutionary conversion, a dark, scintillating vision, and an enviable ear for the fluencies of speech and silence. The poem that opens the book, “Dust Devil,” with its mimetic and concrete funnel shape and Wiman’s signature rhyming couplets, clearly conflates the West-of-Eden, badlands terrestrial phenomenon with our narrator who, like Adam, “man of the red earth,” is seemingly conjured up out of dust, God’s plaything, “God’s top”:

Mystical hysterical amalgam of earth and wind
and mind

over and of
the much-loved

dust you go
through a field I know

by broken heart
for I have learned this art

of flourishing
vanishing

wherein to live
is to move

cohesion
illusion

wild untouchable toy
called by a boy

God’s top
in a time when time stopped.

Like a prodigal top, Wiman’s mind and heart spin throughout the book, journeying through pain and back to the lost then rejected promises of paradise. Charles Wright once described himself as homesick for a place he’d never been. Wiman’s speaker longs for a condition of belonging he can’t recall possessing. It is the brokenness of the world that shows him the way. In the book’s title poem, for example, Wiman parses and reparses the same phrases until “God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made / sing his being simply by being / the thing it is” becomes “God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made / the things that bring him near, / made the mind that makes him go.”

Every “riven thing”—each body invaded by dire illness, mind ravaged by dementia, heart damaged by love and doubt and grief—is a wound making room for unlooked-for and newly awakened grace, the spirit “crying not as if there had been no night / but as if there were no night in which it had not been” (from “2047 Grace Street”). Like the poet, one can imagine Adam confronting the limited power of naming, in poems like “Lord Is Not a Word,” words which, after so much melancholy and in the face of that kind of untested and rediscovered adult joy, fall short:

Lord is not a word.
Song is not a salve.
Suffer the child, who lived
on sunlight and solitude.
Savor the man, craving
earth like an aftertaste.
To discover in one’s hand
two local stones the size
of a dead man’s eyes
saves no one, but to fling them
with a grace you did not know
you knew, to bring them
skimming homing
over blue, is to discover
the river from which they came….

Yet words are what Wiman wields, as Dickinson would say, “like blades.” Like the temple veil rent in twain at Golgotha, Saul blinded on the road to Damascus, Donne begging God to batter his heart, the speaker of the poems in Every Riven Thing wants to sing the shards, “to make of this severed limb / a wand to conjure / a weapon to shatter / dark matter… // Whacking glints / bash-dancing on the cellar’s fire / I am the sound the sun would make / if the sun could make a sound” (from “And I Said to My Soul, Be Loud”). Confronting Adam’s curse and the limitations of words to articulate our condition, Wiman prays, “My God my grief forgive my grief tamed in language.” Yet in the same poem, Wiman offers his trust in divinity’s grace to “[m]ake of my anguish / more than I can make.”

§

One constant in the journey of each of these four books is the foray poems must make into language—its impediments, its obfuscations, its moments of revelation. “[W]ind seeks and sings every wound in the wood / that is open enough to receive it,” Wiman writes in “Small Prayer in a Hard Wind.” The “riffraff” of Cushman’s generous vision that makes “collects” of the quotidian; Daniels’s fierce and compassionate walk through the body politic and sensual at mid-life; Jarman’s iconoclastic, heaven-ward spiraling bone-fire; Wiman’s dust-devil return-of-the-prodigal praisings—all embody poetic imaginations receptive and capacious. As Ammons puts it, “poetry leads us to the unstructured sources of our beings, to the unknown, and returns us to our rational, structured selves refreshed…. Poetry is a verbal means to a nonverbal source.” We can be grateful for the thousand sounds leading us to that source in this quartet of books.

—Reviewed by Lisa Russ Spaar

 


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