In the short space of two collections, Katie Ford has emerged as one of the most recognizably thoughtful poets of her talented generation. Manifesting a rigorous aesthetic combining allusiveness with inwardness, her poems mark the multivalent ways by which the moral conscience registers dailiness with history (also myth) and how consciousness itself perceives the relationship of the small to the overwhelming, the weak to the deadly, the remote to the pressing moment, the insignificant to the topical. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School and of the University of Iowa School of Letters, she has made an impressive readership for herself in less than a decade with her collections (which also include a chapbook) and appearances in such periodicals as The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry.
Prepared, therefore, by talent, temperament, intelligence, and training to write with a mature hand that belies her debut, her poetry rises above that of her peers in that it dispenses with ironic defenses while reaching for the tragic. Indeed, the tragic is the condition in which her work flourishes, as much as disposition toward praise, which, though dormant, one intuits is the baseline of her verse.
In Renaissance painting the deposition depicts the moment of the taking down of the corpse of Jesus from the cross. It begins a time of mystery and suspense: Christ has gone into death, whose outcome now seems beyond the reach of either faith or imagination. It is also of course a taking down of information in legal proceedings, a taking down of facts that bear the weight of truth and lie under the constraints of penalties. Her debut collection, Deposition, concerns issues of commitment and absence, staples of faith as these things relate to the ways by which the existential body negotiates an arrangement with the metaphysical. It was a book that signaled the presence of a serious and inquisitive talent, a lyrical mastery, and a high seriousness blessedly devoid of the pitfalls—sonority and self-importance, for instance, that too often accompany it. Some reviewers professed mystification at parts of Deposition, but all recognized the stakes and so paid attention.
Subsequently, she and her husband had to be evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, and she has written about the destruction of the city in poems that register the disastrous tangle of events, culminating in the deadly refuge of the Superbowl, evoking comparison with the Roman Colosseum, a structure likewise eviscerated and left a ruin. These poems formed the core of her second collection, Colosseum. The colosseum becomes an image of the human mind, "also a place of ruin," indicative of the randomness of potentially fatal encounters.
What is both surprising and tonic is the realization that her poems come from the same well as such European poets as Seferis, Tsvetaeva, and Rilke. She has spoken of these poets as antecedents and mentors, signaling an ambition not just to be a poet but, in the German distinction, a Dichter, a poet who wishes to plumb moral and philosophical depths and to invite us along. If you are a sucker, as I am, for high seriousness, you couldn't do better than to read Ford putting aside for the moment the critical ordnance we often stash nearby as we anticipate our first encounters with new writers. The fact is that these depths and metaphysical nuances have been drying up even among poets (I am even tempted to say especially among poets), for whom it has all too often seemed advantageous to abandon the Verities and move out into a thinner and more inhospitable environment less éngagéthan armed with quotation marks. For Ford we are hardly done with the mysteries (or vice versa), and her poems give the impression that we would do well to imagine a word in which metaphysics doesn't leave us stranded at the feet of the skeptic. Blake was another; Heaney is another. Since the '90s when the size of the malaise first threw its shadow across a whole generation—Katie Ford's generation, David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers understood that the key to rescuing literature's force was not a return to a "new naiveté" (as Zizek conceives of it), not a "reenchantment" of nature, but a reimagining of what wonder would look like, feel like, in a time whose wonders are either radically devalued or negative ones tied to disaster.
Katie Ford's work is significant too in that it points to a way beyond Jorie Graham, whose abandonment of beauty and its aesthetic burdens effectively derailed, in spite of Helen Vendler's interventions, one of my generation's most admired careers. Ford's poems attend upon their subjects without actively imposing either form or theme (though they have both). They do not shrink-wrap their content; rather, they attend, as Heidegger recommended, to the being inside and its absence or suspension. That way they avoid the urge to twist expression into pontification. Here is the opening of "Colosseum":
I stared at the ruin, the powder of the dead
now beneath ground, a crowd
assembled and breathing with
indiscernible sadnesses, light
from other light far off
and without explanation.
Critics have noted that her poems often make connections with animals, and she has spoken of animals as a "remnant force of what's left." Yet her poems move among the effects of the natural world without her appearing a nature poet, which would leave her in a niche, a kind of updated Mary Oliver, but less inclined to promote the general health, in spite of her academic credentials, than a poet devoted to what was left of the truth. A poet, in other words, just as easily offensive to the nostrils of a True Believer as to the plain materialist.
Let me put her work in context. The excesses of irony that have afflicted the entire art world (a form of skepticism directed at both means and ends) has had a profound effect on American poetry, which has tried in ways ranging from resistance to assimilation to recapture the—for lack of a better word—wonder for which the arts are traditionally celebrated and for which praise is the touchstone. This shift was especially notable in poetry because that art, in spite of its dwindling fortunes in recent centuries, still clung to the prestige (or what it conceived as prestige) associated with metaphysical things—of which matters of the spirit and religion were the epitome. There being no spiritual things, poetry's subject base was eviscerated, it was felt, and what ensued was a devil's bargain of materialist theorizing, from so-called language poetry, to a renascence in poetry that doesn't rely on subjective premises. The cost has been great, even as the shift allowed the academy to make an ever tighter grip on the art per se, in the name of custodial expediency, and its new practitioners, unschooled in the wars' clash of values, exercised increasing control over the production and reception of serious verse. On the one hand, we had the democratic (but false) belief that poetry could be written by everyone; on the other we had the elitist view that poetry was now the niche of a group of tightly trained cognoscenti.
Ford has moved beyond the dangers implicit in this dichotomy just as her mentor Graham sought to collapse (but with less success) the dualisms implicit in the recent poetry wars. And her poems are layered enough to warrant the notion that in transcending old dualisms she is less about healing contraries than simply looking ahead. For one who would investigate our times by torchlight, past and future, memory and hope, there's surprising incandescence to be had. The present is revealed as the more significant by these lights.
- David RigsbeeOn Katie Ford
- David Rigsbee reviews the Collected Poems of Jack Gilbert