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Book Review

Katie Ford. If You Have to Go. Graywolf, 2018.
Jericho Brown. The Tradition. Copper Canyon, 2019.
Amanda Jernigan. Years, Months, and Days. Biblioasis, 2018.


Do you think I don’t know that when I say Lord
I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored,
where it is written low lights were confused
by skyward light and flew its bodies

as birds against walls?

                                          —Katie Ford, “Sonnet 31”

 

THIS PAST LENT, Katie Ford’s collection If You Have to Go was in steady rotation for me. I would finish another book, then go back and reread Ford. I did this three or four times. The poems kept pulling me back.

The book’s centerpiece is a series of thirty-nine sonnets, the speaker immersed in loss: of a lover or partner or spouse, of divine presence. “All goes to gone. God of my childhood, / with your attendant monstrosities, / have a little warmth on me, bent and frozen.” The sonnets show, yes, the stupefactions of loss—“A lonely life goes lonely everywhere”; “I thought I’d feel something beside me / to comb out the fright. I suppose I was right: / fright came true, / and turns on a crank”—but even more, they show the tangled claim desire makes on us: “Did I, did I wrongly want?” asks sonnet 20. And sonnet 31: “I don’t know what to want, / but I want it.” Elsewhere: “My desire’s all gone wrong. / It’s starved. And strong.” These last lines are underscored by their placement (they end sonnet 7) and by heavy, end-stopped rhyme. This is how baned and spoiled desire works: strong not despite being starved, but with a strength driven by starvation.

But not all the wanting in these sonnets is misbegotten: not the desire for love, nor the desire quietly announced at the end of sonnet 30: “I’d like… / to show the Lord what the world has done.” Nor the desire (in sonnets 38 and 39) for a companion in whose company the roar of the abyss might hush:

I know Simone says forge a home in the void,
it’s the void wherein roams the battered
kingdom, though she wouldn’t use that word […]

No matter how we try, we’re no good in the void.
Not the kingdom, nor I, so birds, constancies, stay,

stay a spell in my persimmon tree.
I’m hefting myself up so my vacancies
might quiet in your perfect neutrality.

In Ford’s sonnets, loss and desire are corporeal, and prayer, too: the speaker vomits her grief and longing, retching “now over my ground.” “Luckily nobody’s around / to hear me send my sick into the ground. / This is how I pray to the saint of impossible cause: / I don’t call her name— / my body does it all.” A friend offers the speaker one of those divorce clichés: “At least in heartache… / [you] know that [you’re] alive.” “But it’s not a theory,” the speaker protests, “It’s a body, my body / lowered to bed saying goodnight, love. / But it’s just a pretend. No one’s here[.]” It is in the speaker’s body that the (absence of) the human lover and the divine lover most keenly come together, as the mundane indecisiveness and immobility of divorce-depression edges into prayer:

I make my bed every morning.
I don’t know where to start
so I start with the bed.
Then I fall to my knees against it.

Without knowing what I’m falling to,
no mind makes it do it, my body just falls.

Framing the thirty-nine-poem sequence are seven other poems, two of which seem directly responsive to the sonnets. “Psalm 40” follows the sonnets immediately. Ought we then to read the previous thirty-nine poems as psalms? Or maybe the title invites comparison to the original Psalm 40, which begins:

I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.
He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay,
_ and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.
And he hath put a new song in my mouth.

As theologian Ellen Charry explains, the first ten verses of Psalm 40 “function as an antidote to, or, perhaps better, a resolution to the psychological and pastoral calamity undergone in Psalm 39. A song of joyful praise…redeems the despair.” The resolution Ford’s “Psalm 40” offers to the “calamity undergone” in the sonnet cycle is at once decided and ambiguous:

I am content because before me looms the hope of love.
I do not have it; I do not yet have it.

So still there is longing; and perhaps, as in the sonnets, divine and human loves lurk intertwined in that “it.” In the next short stanza, Ford delivers a bit of wisdom—in a metaphor sufficiently robust to deflect the hum of self-help that threatens to overpower the insight. Love

is a bird strong enough to lead me by the rope it bites;
unless I pull, it is strong enough for me.

The speaker admits that

I do worry the end of my days might come
and I will not yet have it. But even then I will be brave

upon my deathbed, and why shouldn’t I be?
I held things here, and I felt them.

Longing, then, and worry about the future—but a much calmer worry than we encounter in the furies of the sonnets; a worry encrusted with courage, and with true appreciation of having held and felt things, even those things that did not endure.

And to all I felt I will whisper hosanna for goodbye.
It is sweet to think of myself, alone at that very moment,

able to say such a thing
to all that was my life,

to all that was not.

I love this poem in part because it speaks to my condition: I am a divorced woman who regularly indulges troubled yet oddly tranquil fantasies of dying alone. Yet “Psalm 40” exceeds such precise biographical intersections. We might all aspire to Ford’s deathbed hosannas, as we might aspire to look at our future selves with charity and kindness. To do so is itself a way of attending to the lovebird who pulls us along.

Like “Psalm 40,” the book’s final poem, “All I Ever Wanted,” adopts a more muted and reflective tone than the sonnets, though here the gaze is retrospective rather than prospective. As the title indicates, we are squarely back to desire:

In the middle of my life
it was right to say my desires
but they went away.

The light of campfires in the hills—campfires, the speaker imagines, ringed by “teenagers in love”—inspires the speaker to again try to say what she wants: “all I ever wanted / was to sit by a fire with someone / who wanted me in measure the same to my wanting.” It’s a poignant articulation of human longing for love, and of human longing for human love—who wants to sit by a fire with a deity?

Although Augustine, who shadows this book from its epigraph, might say otherwise. Augustine would tell us that the desire to be wanted in measure to our own wanting is, perforce, desire for union with God.

§

Another collection I found myself returning to this spring was Jericho Brown’s newest, The Tradition, which takes up traditional poetic form, as well as the tradition of American racism. Here, too, are several astounding sonnets: the title poem is itself a sonnet of satisfying layers and a breathtaking turn. The poem begins innocently, in italicized botanicals, as though it were any old bit of pastorella—but before the second line ends, something’s wrong:

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in the dirt meant it was our dirt […]

Then, after that hint of mistaken assumptions, we are back to nature, but now, alongside nature, a double-politics makes itself plain:

         […] Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks.

Climate change, then, and dead fathers. Then:

                                                     Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.

That ominous image sets up the final line, a line that resumes the italics of the opening botanical:

John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

This punch at the end is characteristic of The Tradition. In another sonnet, “A Young Man,” a young man marvels at his son—how protective he is of his sister: “He is her bodyguard / On the playground.” The last line? “They play. He is not yet incarcerated.” If, as Jeanne Murray Walker has written, a volta is what “makes fourteen lines into a sonnet,” Brown makes the form do its utmost.

The traditions of the church are sometimes here, too; often the speaker of the poems sits catty-corner to them, or is, as the wonderful “Foreday in the Morning” puts it, “confounded by God.” Thus catty-corner, the speaker finds in church vehicles to carry his longing. As in “Deliverance”:

Forgive me, I do not wish to sing
Like Tramaine Hawkins, but Lord if I could
Become the note she belts halfway into
The fifth minute of “The Potter’s House”

When black vocabulary heralds home-
Made belief:  For any kind of havoc, there is
Deliverance! […]

       […] I keep trying to be a sound, something
You will remember
Once you’ve lived enough not to believe in heaven.

Brown explains in a recent interview in the Bennington Review that he was immersed in classic poetic form—canzones, villanelles—by his first teachers. Yet even as he wrote sonnets like “A Young Man,” he asked himself, “What does a sonnet have to do with anybody’s content? And if the presumed content of a sonnet is that it’s a love poem, how do I subvert that? How do I trick that out? And how do I nevertheless make it a love poem?” Beyond wanting a sonnet that was “a Jericho Brown sonnet,” he also “wanted a form that in my head was black and queer and southern…. Since I am carrying these truths in this body as one, how do I get a form that is many forms?”

So he invented a form (formal invention being itself a tradition, of course), one that emerges from the intersection of sonnets, ghazals, and the blues:

a form of repeating lines, where the poem’s first line is going to also be its last line. And because it’s a form of repeating lines, it depends on variation in order to have an[y] progression…. So I’m trying to make this mutt of a form where you start with a couplet of two lines that are completely different, then you repeat the second line and then another line that’s different, then you repeat that line and then another line that’s different, until you have seven couplets. And in the final couplet, you get back to the poem’s first line, which is also the poem’s fourteenth line. It rhymes because you’re repeating the lines, and it turns, so it’s definitely a sonnet.

Brown has christened this form the duplex—because the poem is “like a single place with two addresses.” He continues, “there’s a way that the couplets are not aware of one another, and yet they must be if they’re repeating information from the preceding couplet.” Brown’s duplexes edge nearer to the satisfactions of narrative than do ghazals, while retaining the ghazal’s airiness. They telegraph a poetics (“A poem is a gesture toward home,” one first and last line tells us) and a politics (“Don’t accuse me of sleeping with your man” later becomes “You can’t accuse me of sleeping with a man”—such sex, after all, is not a charge, not fit for accusation).

“I begin with love, hoping to end there,” sings one of the duplexes, and indeed, love suffuses The Tradition. There are mothers loved by sons, mothers wailing and weeping and “Waking us for school with sharp slaps to our bare thighs.” There are fathers: the stunned and tender father of “A Young Man”; another father who “Hit hard as a hailstorm”; a father “you fought / …and won, marred him”; a “tall father / …my first love.” And there are poems of later loves. At least one of them, “Thighs and Ass,” is perfect—erotic, tender, frank, and also, needs must, political. The speaker says that when he was at the gym, bulking up his thighs and ass, he didn’t think much “Of being divided and entered,” though if you’d pressed him, yes, he “knew meat would lure men.” Why do strong legs, strong muscles lure lovers? Because:

             […] flesh properly placed will lead

             One to think that he can—when
He runs from what sniffs to kill us—

Mount my back trusting I may carry
____ Him at a good speed for a long distance,

             And to believe, believe that
When he hungers, I am able

To leap high, snatch
____ The fruit of the tree

We pause to hide behind and feed, feed him.

Here and elsewhere, The Tradition places the desire for justice alongside love-desire (some lovers are sniffed at by killers more than others). The problem of desire, I keep thinking as I read Ford and Brown, boils down to desire’s insistence on exceeding what’s available: on this side of eternity, what we have of God is hidden, and what we have of our human lovers is imperfect, fleeting. So loving is always marked by dissatisfaction, but love’s disappointments and absences are also, tautologically, marked with traces of what might be (what eschatologically will be, Christians ought to say).

Something similar can be said of justice: the world is not bereft of the justice that will be, but in this present era of birth and death and making poems, the justice we have is always located alongside the justice we lack. So, properly, we desire more justice than we have—a claim that’s not merely analogous to what we say about human love but, rather, that bears upon human love, is constitutive of it: as The Tradition shows over and over, human loves—between children and parents, between lovers—are inextricable from the world we have to love them in.

§

One final poetry book has been, with Ford and Brown, accompanying me these past few months: Amanda Jernigan’s Years, Months, and Days. It is a small book—sixty-nine pages, about four by six inches; the poems are all short.

O you who know my will
but do not understand it
and must be driven still
in restlessness, or stranded,
your soul will not be still
until you are resigned
how gentle is your friend
and kind.

That’s the first poem. Here’s the fifth:

by your light lead me
for I am blinded

In the afterword, Jernigan explains that she was “born and bred in the briar patch of secular skepticism,” “on the fringes” of the Waterloo region of southern Ontario; she was raised by parents who took Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost and mathematical textbooks as their “secular vade mecums.” But nearby was a community of Old Order Mennonites. “I in some sense shared very little with the Old Order children who were my neighbours…. Yet in other ways we had much in common: the landscape, the earth, the turn of the seasons. The experience of growing up and growing older. The human grapple that is our coming to terms with death and birth.”

As an adult, having received an arts fellowship that took her back to Waterloo, Jernigan visited an Old Order cemetery. The grave markers gave decedents’ lifespans in “years, months, and days.”

Standing in the graveyard, we began to number our own days…. Matt Broland, 32 years, 5 months, and 12 days…; Amanda Jernigan, 36 years, 5 months, and 17 days…; Colin Labadie, 31 years, 1 month, and 15 days…. When we returned to the studio, Labadie, a musician and composer, began to ring the changes of those numbers, using them to create a melody, hymn-like in its key, but odd and unfamiliar in its numerically dictated intervals: an offering, a celebration, a lament; an expression of both intimacy and disorientation.

Jernigan wanted words for that music—“a meeting-house gravestone, however taciturn, must overhear words enough”—and she found in the library a recent bilingual edition of an Ontario Mennonite hymnal first published in 1836. The poems in Years, Months, and Days are “poetic fragments…coming out of my reading of the Liedersammlung…. They are not translations so much as they are meditations on the possibility of translation, in the broadest sense: what can be carried across the boundary between languages? … [W]hat can be carried across the boundary between religions, or between religion and secularity; between a world defined by the presence of God, and a world defined by His absence?”

In their formal project of hymn revision, Jernigan’s poems recall Dickinson, who has been read as reframing nineteenth-century New England church songs—as when Isaac Watts’s “Stand up, my soul” gives way, in Dickinson, to “Go slow, my soul.” As Dickinson scholars like Sarah Wadsworth have noted, hymns don’t generally voice irony, explore contradictory emotions, or aim to provoke doubt—but by poetically prodding hymnody’s language, Dickinson can do just that.

So too Jernigan:

What happened, happens,
what was, is,
agony, and bliss.
*
O wake
me from
the sleep
of being
sure.

And Jernigan’s poems recall Dickinson in their gnomic elusiveness:

If it kills me
I will kill
the death in me
before it kills me.

The poems themselves seem to float on the small pages like floating heart on a pond. The pages are mostly white space; no poem is longer than fifteen lines (and in that case each line comprises just two words); there are no titles. Sometimes there is rhyme; befitting poems that began as hymns, the rhyme is simple and direct:

It is risen,
it is spoken:
night concluded
morning broken

Also befitting poems that began as hymns, there is repetition; befitting poems that work over, rather than merely compress, hymns, the repetitions take unexpected turns: “take note / did God // did God / your God // your God / from heaven // from heaven / itself // itself / call you // call you / to take note.”

Many strike the way a good translation of Basho strikes:

no sooner the morning,
the shadowing night

Or, as though Mary Oliver had been scrubbed with astringent:

The grain
stands blessed
in fields
where it
is raining.

Did Jernigan intend them for devotion? I don’t know; I doubt it. But I read them all Lent.

Before you were
I did not grieve you;
Now you are not
I cannot leave you.

And:

stay in the garden,
here where we cannot

And:

alone
I ask
who shrives
the heart

 

 


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