Twigs and Knucklebones
by Sarah Lindsay
Copper Canyon Press, 2008
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As we have been reminded in louder warnings than in any year since Y2K, this is the Year of
Darwin. That being so, we might well ponder the passing of vast time, the clashing of tectonic plates, and
extinction of animals in the dark backward and abysm, as well as speculate about the course of evolution
way into the future: Sarah Lindsay does. Lindsay, the author of two well-reviewed collections
(Primate Behavior, 1977 and
Mount Clutter, 2002)
has leveraged a syncretic imagination into a niche industry. Her new volume,
Twigs and Knuckebones,
should go a long way toward securing her reputation as a poet with a specific itinerary and the engine to get her
where she needs to go. She is literary, learned, acerbic, and funny, as well as possessive of more than a little
tenderness, the quality that is historically least in evidence but most in need for her subject: the extreme
decentering of human wishes and the chilly specter of Mother Nature Redux. Her poems suggest that it is to this
that not only must we turn, but turn we will, both because of a kind of weariness with ourselves (Lowell: "I'm
tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil.") and because the future is a big place. If you want to know how big,
just ask the pastand not in terms of human time, but of Deep Time.
Naturalism provides, as it were, a green alternative to the conventions and traditions of
western poetry with their metaphysically indentured ways and means. It frees itself from these ways and means by
avoiding the usual stuff: first person engagements with the outside world, the accumulations of conventions and
gestures, the themes and topoithe literary noodling with which poetry, historically, has more than a passing
interest. A poetry of naturalism, on the other hand, ought to strike us as not unfamiliar, thanks to a lineage
that stretches from Lucretius, by way of Bacon and Darwin, to settle on our shoresand switching time for
placein the persons of Louis Agassiz, John Muir, and Loren Eiseley. Lindsay's poems remind me of essays of
Loren Eiseley as told by James Tate: the last wisps of metaphysical melancholy disperse to make way for the brighter
lens and clearer vision of science. Gary Snyder is also there, but in a different register, as he specifically
deletes Milton and all that he stands for as if performing an act of feng shui.
Lindsay doesn't go after the tradition from which she emerges, but like an evolved poet, simply
points her horns forward, sparing no tears for the vexations of past cultural angst (if any). Much of the difference
in her poems amounts to a matter of perspective: she prefers the long view to the subjective, the telescope to the
love letter, the microscope to the folks in the office. She moves easily between microcosm and macrocosma
specialty also of Eiseley, and, as strategy, this yields its own brave-new-world spectrum of emotions, replacing
elegy with awewhich is to say replacing the past with the future.
As Emerson noted there are two tribes contending for our culture, the Party of Hope and the
Party of Memory; Sarah Lindsay is a member of the former. Emerson, and later Rorty, used these categories to
describe social dispositions. Lindsay's hope is not a secular paradise where human progress finds its true
Jerusalem; she subscribes to the sense that "hope," whatever else it is, is an evolutionary trait. As for memory,
it's problematic, as a moment's reflection on the subject of archaeology will confirm.
There is a shrewd ambivalence that lurks under the question of what absence "feels" like. It
surfaces in "Elegy for the Quagga." Since extinction is evolution's equivalent of forgetting, it is of interest
to the poet, who is not merely content to put us in our place, but wishes us to contemplate the plain swept free
of quaggas and other creatures that have hit their departure buttons. She suspects that forgetting is also part of
the housekeeping of love: forgetting cleans the place up. So how we get down with "death's second self" (oblivion)
is an index of our capacity for wonder. Wonder and love both become, as it were, free-standing; they're no longer
required to be relational or interpersonal to be real. A blow to subjective poetry? You be the judge. But Lindsay's
poems ask us to consider if taking the longand I mean really longview is one way we manage to exercise our
species' maturity: saying adieu to the quagga, to whole branches of the tree of life, and finding in that the
consolation of the really real? Brave new world, indeed.
For all that, it's also steady as she goes, for while the scientist's eye is nearly always busy
focusing on little-noticed phenomena that she will pick out and describe, she never abandons the craft she learned
as a poet. It is also true enough to say that being a poet, she cannot have gone over completely into the
naturalist's camp, as her craft entailments alone tie her to a mast where the whole cultural barge of poetry's
discourse, from yawp to Elizabethan splendor, sails on into any and every sunset that the dolphin and the cloud
One of the marks of a gifted poet is the ability to sweep up disparate filaments of fact in
masterly fashion and to dish them out, suitably summarized, evaluated, and skewed (which actskewingis
the compliment language pays to mundane fact). With Lindsay, this gift is often on show. "Destruction" describes
the difference between the old-style archaeology of the amateur, the "ruin-bibber," in Larkin's phrase, and the
lab-coat-clad scientist of romance-less modernity. Her swaggering antiquarian and roué is himself the ruin he seeks:
his life consists in grabbing with acidic, unscientific hands, hands that "were restless . . . / not to amass or
study, but/ to spill, to jingle, to give away grandly." This baron also brings with him the colonialist's
combination of obtuseness and derring-do, finished with a dash of Paterian aestheticism:
They say the Baron von Hausknecht traveled
nowhere without a valet, a chef, and a mistress;
and cursed in nine languages, some of them dead,
which he taught his mynah bird.
and wildly in debt by turns, he left a trail
of women smitten or well amused,
partridge bones and empty bottles,
rumors of duels, a few of his teeth,
and a newly chic fascination with ancient lands.
He wore black lambskin gloves, they say, at all times,
and had crates of fine wind carried to every dig.
Part of the fun of
Twigs and Knuckebones comes
with the realization that the spirit of Indiana Jones hangs over it. While on the one hand It is as if Sarah Lindsay
stowed away on the Beagle, on the other, it's as if her discoveries are served up Hollywood-slick, not with the
groaning and creaking of the mast, nor with the motion sickness and boredom of the protagonist. Lindsay brings a
swashbuckling tone to bear as science reveals the future, while canceling any vanity we might have presumed to bring
forward. Whether it's the old-school archaeologist, half-drunk on Assyrians and Hittites, or the negativity of
left-brained explorers, she's too poised to be bummed out by either. Neither does she let her tools drag her back
down into holes from which no poet can emerge. Either it's the sheer abundance of life, prolific and overcoming
adversities, or it's the threat of extinction (especially in the first poems). Is there somehow a fear of extinction
lurking in her poems? If there is, there is nothing to be gained by not looking catastrophe in the eye.
The more you grow into naturalism, the more tragedy comes to seem unintelligible. And if that is
the case, does the naturalist transcend tragedy? The pathos of classical literature was precisely that the tragedy
of heroes was unintelligible to the gods; we gained dignity as a result. By contrast, the triumph of Christianity
was that it grew into and through tragedy, thereby marking it as a "human" religion. In Lindsay's poems people appear
obliquely, not front and center. Even when they are the subjects, they are frequently seen in shadow. But naturalism
is vaster than tragedy, which seems by contrast, smaller, self-important. And if tragedy is small, then what? What
with the conquering vastness, some sublime would seem to be the next stage, but Lindsay knows better: the vastness
that begins at the ends of our noses outstretches any sublime. In the end, our stance toward vastness is just
fashioned by tweaks and quirks. It's mental tourism, and that's just another version of species vanity. So she keeps
her distance, both because "awe" still carries the taint of hoary old encounters and because the vasty deeps that
stretch before her imagination are often of a microscopic variety, as in "Why We Held On":
But the reasoning minds of the twenty-third-
having found the cause of our
can move ahead toward a cure. Although
some researchers instead will find
they cannot resist pursuit of the abstruse mystery
of the parasites' motivation.
To Lindsay's eye, history is corrosion; impact craters pile up until the planet's surface is as
pittedand significantas a bad case of acne. In "Valhalla Burn Unit on the Moon Callisto," patients take
advantage of the "soothing views," recuperating in an environment "never close to each other or anything." The
self-important present gets warehoused as unceremoniously as does the ark in the final scene of Raiders of the
Lost Ark, an ending that would have raised the hairs on Diderot. And as it is to the elements of creation, so
it is to the components of recreation, especially art. Ozymandias meets Ryder Haggard In "The Museum of Damaged Art:
Audio Guide," where,
A broken air conditioner flooded
Brice Marden color fields, and they bled.
A portrait of Eubie Blake was slit
across the face as its shipping crate was opened.
If ruins are your thing, it doesn't get any better than that. A museum of unpreservable objects
is no paradoxall museums are in the business of non-preservation, even featuring non-preservation:
If we had funding we could show
Rembrandt's Danaë in a time-lapse sequence:
first overcast with age, then bubbling and running
with sulfuric acid, then propped while a row
of curators gently spit water on it,
finally with its monotone repainting
As it is, just another vandalized Rembrandt,
But just as the Age of Reason knew that memento mori are always good, so the Museum replaces the
feel-good mood of tragedy, with a glance at new horizonsalmost as if this were an anti-privilegewhere
we will also not be invited:
Step through the door marked EXIT now;
the cracked sidewalk leads to Parking.
Observe on your left the beaten grass
where not one stone is left on stone
of the building that stood here once, before ours,
and on your right the city skyline
and distant mountains, faint in the corrosive haze.
The centerpiece of
Twigs and Knucklebones is
a series of poems called "The Kingdom of Nab," which Lindsay describes as "a fictional realm in the neighborhood of
Hittites and Assyrians." You might say the congeries of her ideas in the opening poems are systematized and applied
to an entire civilization; there are subsections ("Late Kingdom," "Middle Kingdom," "Early Middle," and "Early
Kingdom") reversing the Rise-and-Fall cliché to give pride of place to the fall. In this dusty-shard-filled
sequence, full of displaced gods and domestic objects, Lindsay works the same territory George Seferis did in his
great Modernist poem, "The King of Asiné." For Seferis, the question was one of retrieval: what lives on in the
word? May we "retrieve" the king merely mentioned in Homer's list of combatants? In Lindsay's version, linguistic
archaeology directs its attention to the barest threads of present humanity's connection to lost humanity. For
some, the dwindling returns speak for themselves, and their lack of interest gets no censure here. But for the
impassioned scholar, everything turns on nuance, placement, and conjecture:
Hundreds led in battle, hundreds slain?
A thousand times beloved, nine hundred sheep?
And the standard translation of this word, here,
is either "desire" or "need." But did he write
of a homeless yearning, or mercantile requirements?
Was he a "singer"? The scholars who care disagree.
In the manner of "The King of Asiné," how would we know the difference? But even if we don't and
basic meaning itself occasionally flips over into nonsense, have we no business then producing scholars and
scientists? As meaning gets weaker with age, as contexts erode, what happens when we "sample" the past, construing
meanings and forming conjectures from dwindling circumstance? "Estimag and Sililit," dappled with ellipses and
lacunae provides one answer:
Therefore the people . . .
. . . gather up and . . .
. . . even the widow and the infant . . .
. . . as if the smallest grains. . .
The rest is missing.
In "The Ruins of Nab," Lindsay continues the theme:
We prod and whisk and deduce what we can
from marks and clay, from the trace of a wall.
But the way king tossed and caught his
the foolish songs he improvised for his wife,
and his furry voice
these have been safely forgotten.
The excavator-poet sets about deducing "what we can," and we have to be satisfied with that,
filling the gaps with imagined bits of plausibility, a set of repairs that this book also accomplishes. In a way,
losing "fact" through time and replacing it with imagination is not a bad bargain for the significance-seeker, when
you think about it. Lindsay suggests her approval when she lovingly gives us a sunset, dorsal view of the
archaeologist at work repairing the filaments in civilization's fraying braid:
See! Behold! Look! Lo!
they cry in season, rapt, in love,
chipping away with their pocketknives,
pencils, rulers, fingernails,
but some have tunneled so narrowly and deep
that those behind see nothing but slivers of light
around an excavator's haunches.
("The So-called Singer of Nab")
The question of passion versus being-in-the-know surfaces here, the passion of the archaeologist
is suggestive of Billy Collins' familiar image, the self-hugging trick that from one angle looks sexy, from another
like a straitjacket. Yet for all that, as she says in "Sililit the Ungraspable":
I have found my desire.
I have breathed on it.
I have barred it to plundering light.