Reviews of Arthur Sze’s The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems; Louise Glück’s Winter Recipes from the Collective; David Yezzi’s More Things in Heaven: New and Selected Poems; and Michael Waters’ Caw
The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems
By Arthur Sze
560 pages. Copper Canyon Press, 2021.
One of the great hoary questions that occurs to all poets has to do with the world, in Wittgenstein’s sense that “the world is everything that is the case”: does it hang together? Or does it, as Yeats said, “fall apart”? It’s not a matter of comprehension, of course. The number of things humans can’t comprehend is infinite: we can only wrap our minds around a smidgeon of it, our totalizing senses notwithstanding. The question is rather whether our ability to experience our own lives leans toward the interdependence of things or toward their random, atomized separateness, their singularity. On the one hand there is Dante and the purposeful universe, parsed by him into an exquisite order full of interconnected hierarchies (later supplemented by Blake’s “world in a grain of sand”). Arthur Sze comes at the question this way:
A man travels
from Mindanao to Kyushu and says his inner geography
is enlarged by each new place.
Might he not grow more by staring for twenty-four hours
at a single pine needle?
At the other end, there is disconnection, uncertainty, the melancholy of entropy, the unpredictability of quantum mischief. Sze’s The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems shows him clearly on the side of connectedness, from macro to micro, of the butterfly effect, whereby the slightest movement here reverberates there, the butterfly’s wings doing their part to make the tsunami bearing down half a world away. It’s also the world of mycelium networks (mushrooms figure prominently in his work) the messaging and cooperation of lichens and trees, of ancient know-how similar to Snyder’s, and much else besides. Is Sze an eco-poet? Well, sort of. His work actually predates this growing poetics, but it’s self-derived rather than ideologically motivated.
Wishing to dismantle hierarchies implicit in such languages as English has led Sze on a career-long search to explore how to conceive of a poem that stands as an alternative to poems beholden to the familiar formal hierarchies with their categories, subordinations, and vertical literary forms. Although Sze’s poems are often conventionally stanzaed, that doesn’t mean that they march to a drummer or “develop” in some causal way. Nor does the old gradus ad parnassum interest him. On the contrary, he has spoken of the equilibrium that words create, thanks to the equality between them, no one of which is more important than the others. To some, especially those schooled in Western literary traditions, this might suggest a leveling effect. Isn’t poetry, after all, more or less a set of formally ranked scales, where words, both in light of the things they represent, and in light of their lexical distinction, vie for attention and superiority? Sze’s poems suggest that there is more to the story than that.
Sze is fond of sprinkling his poems with words you have to look up, so keeping Webster’s Third nearby would be advisable: opercular, nutation, epilimnion, water-caltrop, nyctalopia, stridulating, oviparous, anyone? These aren’t just curiosities, though; they’re exact and exacting terms, though they are abstractions too and discretely distanced from the things to which they refer, not to mention neighboring words. Yet there are times when abstractions themselves take up the banner of images: “The continuous bifurcates into the segmented/ as the broken extends.” (“Chrysalis”) Sze is good at producing off-the-cuff maxims. He would have been an equally remarkable poet had he appeared in the 18th century.
Often, he employs the dash to suggest an opportunity for collaboration. It is we, in our minds who provide the balance to the phrases that precede them. You could imagine an edifying game based on this.
Comet Hyakutake will not pass Earth for another 100,000 years—
No matter, ardor is here—
And to the writer of fragments, each fragment is a whole—
(“Compass Rose,” “Comet Hyakutake”)
Besides the poems featuring dashes, there are others that imply their juxtaposed discontinuities are only apparent. It’s a gentler alternative to metaphor, which asserts straight-up the similarity and/or hidden concord of otherwise dissimilar things.
Robin’s coworkers were terminated, she left
Her telecommunications job to groom the horses
She loves, even in zero-degree weather; she
Cinches a saddle on Nemo even now….
Nets, constellations, braids, cords, intertwinings of all kinds show up in the poems to reinforce the idea that, although randomness underwrites all encounters, interdependence is not therefore contradictory. Scientists make theories out of complexity; Sze makes music out of it. But notice, the poems don’t capitulate to the randomness they address: they make a place for connection without the implied insistence that often dogs metaphor. They also tip their hat toward received poetic structures of an understandably hieratic nature:
I try to constellate points
By which I could, in clear weather, hike
Across an immense lava flow, but find
Elegy and ode our magnetic north and south.
Elegy and celebration may be said to man the distance between solemnizing loss (elegy) and appreciation (ode). These are the realms of the mind in the act of making the interpersonal melodies of poetry. Encountering the random also means, sooner or later, encountering violence, and the poems here offer, not infrequently, images attesting to their place in the consideration of simultaneity. Consider:
You become a black mirror:
When a woman pulls a barbed cord through
Her tongue, when a man mutilates himself
With stingray spines, what vision is earned?
It’s a good question, the answer to which, I submit, lies in the structure of the poems: the relation of images to other images, including those not actually written but left in the fill-in-the-blanks portions of poems soliciting imaginative participation, even gentle compliance, on the part of the reader:
An owl lifts from a poplar,
while the moon, no, the human mind
moves from brightest bright to darkest dark.
(“After a New Moon”)
At bottom, Sze’s way of presenting images, because of their random placement, is meant to suggest the human capacity for wonder. It is “the mindless beauty of the quotidian,” as he puts it (“Kaiseki”), a beauty that exists within the reach of our perceptions. The quest for wonder is a good playbook for anyone; for a poet it’s key to the idea that the world evolves to regard itself:
The night-blooming cereus opens five white blossoms
in a single night. He remembers looking
through a telescope at craters, and craters
inside craters on the moon. He recalls
being startled at the thought, gravity precedes light.
Sze, then belongs to the venerable tradition of poets who exalt what they behold in the hopes of, in Blake’s terms, becoming what they behold. It’s a dynamic of belonging. It’s also a critique of objectivity:
In a crude theory of perception, the apple you
see is supposed to be a copy of the actual apple,
but who can step out of his body to compare the two?
Who can step out of his life and feel
the Milky Way flow out of his hands?
(“The Unnameable River”)
If you know
the names of a bird in ten languages, do you know
any more about the bird?
By exalting the quotidian Sze also finds himself in a position similar to Professor Pangloss: “Isn’t this the most mysterious of all possible worlds?” (“Kaiseki”). This possibility is set for critique, owing to our mortality; it’s possibly the most mysterious, but maybe not therefore the best:
A child enters a house and finds
a dead man whose face has been eaten by dogs.
Who is measuring the pull of the moon in a teacup?
In a thousand years, a man may find barrels
of radioactive waste in a salt bed and be unable
to read the warnings.
After confessing “I am not scared of death,” he writes,
You can descend to the swimming level of sharks,
be a giant kelp growing from the ocean bottom up
to the surface light, but the critical moment
is to die feeling the infinite stillness of the passions,
to revel in the touch of hips, hair, lips, hands,
feel the collapse of space in December light.
There’s no getting around the fact that Sze’s achievement is considerable. So is the book, weighing in at over 500 pages. If you sit down to read it straight through, as I did when my copy came, the poems may begin to seem repetitive and even formally mannered. But I have lived with the book now for over a month, going back to it daily, and it now feels to me otherwise. Why did I not see the theme-and-variation raised to a new level? You can follow the chronology, but with the exception of a few examples from his earliest work, you begin to see that his work space is being filled, rather than developing. The impression aligns with his relational imagination. Sze’s images are sharply in focus, like computational photography, his sensibility (to use an old-timey, but useful word) presents us with a vision that is surreally hyper-aware. He would retire the old cliché that life is a dream and substitute the more likely trope—also a cliché —that life is a dance, which is the hallmark of presence, if not presence of mind. The Glass Constellation is edifying in its freshness, confident in its approach, and winningly modest in its adjustment of the sublime. It marks a kind of poetry I would like to see more of.
Winter Recipes from the Collective
By Louise Glück
42 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
When Winter Recipes from the Collective arrived, I noticed immediately its emphatic thinness, coming in at 42 pages, the same length as her breakthrough book, The House on Marshland (1975). As we know from her Collected Poems 1962-2012, the minimalism implied with that early collection gave way to a mighty outpouring —now a 60-years’ oeuvre, each new collection distinctly defined thematically, but one voice to rule over all. Let’s talk about that voice.
A Glück poem is immediately recognizable, even when it’s in the mouth of characters who appear in the poems: wintry, elegiac, reserved, semiformal. Yet within those parameters, she can execute effects passed over or unavailable to less disciplined poets. It’s as if she can retrieve or reinvent the diction and registers of some unspecified, but known, time before she was born, long after their efficacy had run out and language moved on, without sounding dowdy or anachronistic. I go to her for that voice, even when she reminds us, as she certainly does here, that matters of address, from endearments to honorifics, are ultimately literary politesse. The addressee and the speaker alike stand in a more discrete relationship than you typically expect to find in the work of her peers, for whom linguistic immediacy is paramount, and the fact is one key to her power. She can even salvage that old poetic chestnut, the apostrophe, the rhetoric address to the Infinite that makes demotic folks reach for the Tylenol or a stiff drink. And yet, such tricks, brought in to such special and appealing effect in The Wild Iris (1993) reveals a poet immersed in the depths of her themes: loss, of course, especially including loss of love and partnership, the tether (also noose) of family and whatever can’t be gainsaid in the face of time and rearrangement, and finally, the existential wonder of the naked self in its vexing subjectivity. It doesn’t matter whether God or a flower is at the mic. As in fairy tales, fictions find a way of being brought to life. At the same time, we are authentically, even touchingly, creatures who need attending in our brevity, our sadness as well as our wonder. Therein lies a cluster of paradoxes: our words may not be our own, and yet we feel the need to utter them. We live as if in a world governed by emotions and biology on the one hand and enabling fictions on the other. To explore a balance between these two is a life’s work.
Glück has been seen as a kind of American Rilke, but she actually has the advantage over that needy Tyrolian rhapsodist (note how close I came to saying narcissist). Whereas Rilke’s mysticism comes off as showy, Glück’s god, by which we may understand the limiting image of articulation, comes across as intractable, even indifferent. Still, there is a comparable range so that emotional response is gussied up as spirit, memory and dream as the chance dispensers of images, with thought relegated to summary offerings and formal housekeeping chores. The collection begins with “Poem,” whose anonymous title stands as a template. An unnamed couple (“you and I”) set out on a journey, but, unlike “a boy and a girl” who climb the same “ice-covered mountain,” they experience its downside: “Downward and downward and downward and downward/ is where the wind is taking us”:
And then we are simply falling—
And the world goes by,
all the worlds, each more beautiful than the last…
Glück seems always aware of the vulnerabilities as we first take note, then succumb, to the downside, where we can only say, “I touch your cheek to protect you—.” The poems ends on the dash, that Dickinsonian reminder that we experience the intervaling durations, sometimes attending to them wordlessly, but attending nonetheless.
Similarly, in “The Denial of Death” (the title of a well-known book by anthropologist Ernest Becker) a “concierge” appears just as the speaker has lost her passport and her traveling companion. He figures as a protector, interlocutor, and counselor through the poem’s two sections, depositing pearls of vatic wisdom like,
Everything is change, he said, and everything is connected.
Also everything returns, but what remains is not
what went away….
This formal character comes to seen a figment (as does the speaker), perhaps an alter ego, as well as an all-purpose helper. It is, after all, his business to help. When the passport is located and returned, the speaker tosses it into a lake. Later, she muses on change and the desire to make an account of it:
Something true had been spoken
And though I would have preferred to have spoken it myself
I was glad at least to have heard it.
By the end of the poem, the identities have been scrambled,
Concierge, I said, Concierge is what I called you.
And before that, you, which is, I believe,
a convention in fiction.
Time has moved on, and the concierge avers that the travel diary the poet has kept was, to his thinking, called The Denial of Death.
In the title poem, death and push-back come into view from a different angle. Peasants gather winter moss for fermenting, then pressed into service as a sandwich:
“an invigorating winter sandwich”
it was called, but no one said
it was good to eat: it was what you ate
when there was nothing else, like matzoh in the desert…
The gathered moss is also used for the potting and care of bonsai:
The trees were miniature, as I have said,
But there is no such thing as death in miniature.
Little by little, Glück leads us to feel that the fit of death to winter is a closer fit than maintenance, that despair, first shadowing hope, then superseding it, is the lot of the attentive person:
I was not
permitted to prune it but I held the bowl in my hands,
a pine blowing in high wind
like man in the universe.
In “Winter Journey,” there were “things that had died along the way.” It’s in winter in which the beholder, in Stevens’ famous phrase, “beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Unlike Stevens, Glück beholds not only the weariness of dragging through the nothingness (“I was very tired walking along the road,/ very tired—I put my hat on a snowbank” but an accompanying figure:
Every hour or so, my friend turned to wave at me,
or I believed she did, though
the dark obscured her.
Still her presence sustained me:
some of you will know what I mean.
It could be said that Glück’s poems are glum, about the poet’s emotional ups and downs, aging and failed love, about fatuous attempts to wrest tiny bits of hope and/or consolation from the lazy maw of despair, that they weld Greek mythology onto the substance of poems. If you squint, all of these are, in some sense, true, and yet you can exonerate her because of the beauty of the writing, the sturdy lines and clear images, the reliable voice that tracks its inner conflicts to the point of paradox. Behind them, so often, there are stories to which we are not privy. Perhaps it’s the fact that she withholds the hic et ille of confession that allows her to be present in the language of evocation, that gives that language its often dreamlike quality, as was the case of her previous collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night. In that volume, the thought of death doesn’t bear down so much as suffuse time like a poetic version of cosmic radiation. That’s the case here too, where each word is the ghost of the thing it names, to put a slight spin on a well-known line from Robert Hass. The fact removes the obligation to pass judgment. Ambivalence lurks at the site of beauty, but she makes her peace with that.
And yet we are headed for death. No one is abused on this point, nor does she write to disabuse us. And yet, as Yeats said, it’s not the quarrel with the world that matters; rather, it’s the quarrel with ourselves that brings us to account for the difference between the time lost and the time remaining. Glück, who is 78, has been haunted by Terminus for some time now. She understands that stories, even more than the characters that make them up, can provide a kind of structural solace to contingency. Love poems fall into this category, as in “An Endless Story”:
…we all despise
Stories that seem dry and interminable, but mine
will be a true love story,
if by love you mean the way we loved when we were young,
as though there were no time at all.
Not only that, it’s a sustaining search that surpasses its own success:
This is why we search for love.
We search for it all our lives,
even after we find it.
In “The Setting Sun,” which recounts (or does it?) a blind, Zen-like teacher of painting who speaks in koans and, tellingly, approvingly, hints that the speaker, the poet-painter, should go and be likewise:
…when I judge from a student’s
despair and anger he has become an artist,
then I speak. Tell me, he added,
what do you think of your own work?
Not enough night, I answered. In the night I can see my own soul.
That is also my vision, he said.
That is also the vision of this collection, to see the soul against a backdrop. What she finds is the struggle against our common nemesis: change and loss. What she accomplishes she does so the old way, by sorting through dream and and dross to find among the expired what can be treasured, even if it’s anything but reassuring:
Outside the car, the cows and pastures are drifting away;
They look calm, but calm is not the truth.
Despair is the truth. This is what
mother and father know. All hope is lost.
We must return to where it was lost
if we want to find it again.
Winter Recipes from the Collective, despite its brevity, takes its place among Glück’s best work. It’s nuanced, surprising in its conclusions, but beautiful and starkly eloquent. It makes the case that winter is the top of seasons, with age aligning itself accordingly. What of the “collective” of the title? In her Nobel lecture, she writes, “In art of the kind to which I was drawn, the voice or judgment of the collective is dangerous.” The danger comes from judgment, we learn, which include the guardrails and orderings of one established kind of human speech (think of the winter sandwich), the other being “the precariousness of intimate speech” because it “adds to its power and the power of the reader.” These are quiet words, but all the more useful for that.
More Things in Heaven: New and Selected Poems
By David Yezzi
168 pages. Measure Press Inc., 2022.
David Yezzi is an enjoyable poet, which is not the kind of compliment you expect to read in a review. His More Things in Heaven: New and Selected Poems is for the most part formally secured, its materials pushing up inside the tarp of language. He can go from matter-of-factly casual (“Strong bud. Mind-splitting, hydroponic, pure indica body-high, one-hit weed,/ grown from Hawaiian seeds in a closet in a doublewide in Maine, up near Canada”) (“Tiger Tiger”) to old, literary floor exercises—like being epigrammatic—in a snap:
Paper creased is
with a touch
made less by half,
reduced as much
again by a second
fold — so the wish
to press our designs
It’s one of the chief dynamics you notice: language’s obedience in being laced up (or tied down), against its wish to react and spring free. Yezzi operates in several registers, often overlapping:
Forgive the things you cannot have:
the supple bod,
a nicer pad,
long chats with God…
Rhyming “bod” with “God” is just the kind of mischief that elevates a poet on the back of deflationary wit. Alternatively, you can feel a sinuous grace emerge from a morning run with his daughter:
hung with gold
by spiders in
The threads glint
in sidewise lines,
by the air,
so loosely worn
they’re hardly there.
Aside from such tendrily, hyper-self-aware poems, Yezzi also makes good with more conventional, sit-down approaches, such as when he’s writing about family and home:
My father lived and died in his same chair
and kept it to one beer. There’s good in that.
Who could look down upon, or even dare
to question, what he managed out of life?
Age makes us foolish. Still, he had a house,
a patch of grass and room to breathe, a wife.
And home abandoned:
Out the bedroom window, through the green
of the garden, a bell
announces the consecration of the scene
from which we’re now outcasts. You say, “Ah, well,
it wouldn’t be Eden if we could stay.”
But more than anything we wish to stay
and like Masaccio’s Adam, I cast a glance
that syncs with yours, until we look away,
then down, and realize it’s not just chance
but our forsaking that makes the memory.
(“333 East 68th Street”)
Add to that, in the poem that opens the volume, he addresses his daughter about the seasons:
Each spring now I
check the taps,
since you have moved away.
Maybe it’s the sleight-
of-hand of age, but each
year the sap sluices,
it seems, later and later,
too cold to run.
Another week, I tell myself.
If you have the secret,
it’s there with you,
(“Sugar on Snow”)
Speaking of time, I wonder, is there anything to be said about our journey through duration and our awareness of the fact that doesn’t have to first resist seeming to emerge from a state of cliché? The answer to that is yes, and with his leanings toward classicism, Yezzi is mindful that poems are ipso facto about reimagined time in more sustaining forms and measures. To the degree that the need to make poems is also windmill-tilting (for as Auden reminded us, time is “intolerant”) it’s also reliable. At the end of the poet’s day, it is his most ingenious paradox. It also suggests why he titled the book as he did.
Yezzi may be our best dramatic monologist since Richard Howard. This venerable form of impersonal self-disclosure balances the beam of the poet’s bias to toward the poem as a record of personal, important moments. He escapes that box to reemerge as a storyteller, a voice at once intimate and compelling. The voice is his hook. Consider the opening to the title poem,
When you have seen something, alone, just you,
you’ve got a choice: to keep it to yourself
or tell someone and keep on telling it
until they see it’s true. Spoiler: they won’t —
that’s what you get for saying what you saw.
And, look, I’m not a fool. Can we be clear?
I didn’t buy a word this guy was saying,
though he believed it
(“More Things in Heaven”)
What follows is a story about an eccentric blind landlord, an ex-CIA man, about whom it is insinuated the he might have been involved in the death of Idi Amin. There’s also a loaded gun, Lake Victoria, dead and wounded pigeons, a dog named Daisy, who sometimes shits on the couch, and much more. It’s a wild story, all the more so in that the ex-CIA operative, though present, never speaks. The landlord speaks on his behalf to the speaker of the poem, who is the invention of David Yezzi. You can see the temptation to play with such stories, their characters, the shifting voices, and the ensuing urge to mount a tall tale. Yezzi shepherds these misfits and odd details along with engaging brio.
There are sailing poems, climbing poems, and postcard poems sifted throughout the volume. The subject matter is wide, but the imagination that passes over the range bears what come to be familiar traits: an evenness of diction, a complicit friendliness of voice that doesn’t venture too far into into regret over loss, as if sensing ironies that might stray into banalities he would otherwise like to avoid. Yezzi’s work has been compared with that of Donald Justice. There is the same dry, smart, Oxford button-down quality, the same pitching up to something larger that doesn’t require the exertions necessary to make it to the edge. There are, as you might imagine, exceptions. For example, the subject of “Sheep May Safely Graze” is Johan Christoph, the son of Johan Sebastian Bach.
Alone in Weimar, with Goethe not yet born,
and the scythe of history sleeping in the wheat,
he listened to the notes that made no sound,
giving himself completely to the laws
of counterpoint alive in every key,
and, ruled by them, composed a song of praise.
Yezzi too is ruled by the contrapuntal, especially when it arises in beset circumstances.
Others of these narrative poems include “French Suites” (“One Hundred Umbrellas” and “Marina in Nervi”). Another is “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” which, as the title alludes, concerns an actor’s recounting of his salad days as a waiter turned (bad) Shakespearean actor and of his off-and-on again affair with a dancer, who (spoiler alert) dies by suicide. This tragic conclusion doesn’t prevent the poem from performing a rollick that’s marked by waves of chatty exuberance and not a little satire and derision, much self-aimed. Performing Macbeth in English in Germany doesn’t go well: “Not even knowing German, we could tell/ the papers thought we were a total joke. Yezzi is kind enough to narrate this tour as a blooper reel. For instance, the troupe’s Banquo is a guy named Bill (“Bill’s this graying hippy from the Village…”) who loses his lines:
So, Bill comes out; he looks up in the grid,
with three or four of us just standing there,
and Duncan, who’s the king, so hugely fat
he’s like a minivan. So, Bill looks up.
(He’s downstage.) He looks down. He looks at us:
“This . . . bird,” he says.
And he’s completely up:
that’s when you’re off the script, you’re up, you’re up.
You’ve no idea who you are or what
Nor is he extended a rope by his fellow thespians:
Duncan sees that Bill’s completely jammed,
so what he does is . . . throw the guy a bone?
Skip ahead and pick up later on?
No, no. He stands there, doesn’t say a word,
steps forward even, sort of cranes his neck,
as if to say, “Uh-huh? We’re list-en-ing.”
I tell you, actors — they’re a pack of dogs,
The poem continues in this vein until its characters splinter off as their fortunes change, and time drags them offstage. It’s no surprise to learn that Yezzi has a background in acting, and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” which is subtitled “A travesty,” is also a theatrical tour de force.
Speaking of performance, More Things in Heaven reminds us of Hamlet’s remark to Horatio that there’s more to be dreamt of than anyone’s philosophy can embrace, a variousness that equals infinity. Yezzi is a master when it comes to channeling abundance.
In the middle of his career, Yezzi has established himself as poet of admirable dexterity and reach. His work bears the marks of an amiable storyteller who is as comfortable topping himself, moment by moment, as he is of being cast as Stevens’ noble rider. He is as much a quotidian elegist as a searcher, a vivid performer who knows what it takes to step in the spotlight, in danger of forgetting his lines, and yet calling attention to the fact as a feature of the art. That is, he gives the impression of a poet who belongs being down front, but he is also one willing to stand apart and tell us other things we ought to hear, sotto voce.
By Michael Waters
96 pages. BOA Editions Ltd., 2020.
Is there anybody who doesn’t wish to be forgiven? Especially in matters of the heart. Michael Waters forgives us. He forgives himself too. The treatise on love that begins his new collection, Caw, is a nod to the not-always-graceful dance we conduct between age and desire. The “caw” of the title, referencing Ginsberg’s monosyllabic corvids sounds to my ear a little like because in the same way that Ivan Ilych’s last word, meant to be forgive comes out “forego,” as he expires, at least in the translation I used to teach. A slip of the tongue can deepen a poem. Here we have inertly responsive dolls, a fatally affectionate octopus, an ex’s recipes overwritten by his true love’s substitutions, a description of desire’s workings from the perspective of Scientific American (well, sort of), a determination to hang on to his daughter in the middle of a custody battle and a possibly rabid bat. All fall within the ambit of desire. If they have one other thing in common, it’s that the provenance of each defies prediction. For Waters, there is no banality in love.
As usual, he can be bawdy, but a kind of vital mischief has always been part of his routine. He begins the volume with mention of Kokoschka’s famous doll replica of Alma Mahler, his inamorata, who abandoned him to return to Walter Gropius, with whom she had previously been involved. Despite his detailed instructions to the doll-maker, the resulting effigy of Alma turned out to be a creepy golem covered with feathers. Kokoschka eventually threw a garden party during which he destroyed the doll, if not his fascination with Alma Mahler. Why the poet calls attention to this bizarre, if famous, story I cannot tell you, but dolls appear several times in first section of this three-sectioned volume. You might notice that they are also creations, like poems. The opening poem ends with an apology: “I apologize /for this inexhaustible desire,” (“Self-Portrait with Doll, 1920-21″) If desire is inexhaustible, as he says, then it hardly matters if its object is a failed fetish or a living wife. The details with which he describes his own spouse uncannily echo the instructions Kokoschka used in his letters to the doll-maker.
Waters expands his thesis with “Swyve,” an obscenity that Chaucer put into the mouths of his most rascally characters. It means “fuck,” as Waters helpfully informs us in the endnotes.
Don’t we all try to get away
With a few mild transgressions,
Words and lips given us to swivel…
Because Waters is a troubadour when it comes to all the swivings and curlings of our intimacies, real, hoped-for, and remembered, it’s no surprise that his poems are technically sophisticated. The tradition of such mastery no doubt owes something of its longevity and prestige to the hint of mating display. You show your colors in the right way, and the lover’s attention is secured, rivals banished to second-string. At least that’s the theory.
Speaking of colors, there’s that poem about an octopus (“Dearest Creature”), whose own shifting colors in the presence of the marine biologist are presented as inter- species romance: “Teasing her philtrum with the tip/ Of a tentacle.” I note that “philtrum” connects too with the old-timey love philter—or love potion, as we would call it. Even the Greek philein, from which it derives, means to love. Alas, the amorous octopus is doomed by his own intelligence when, figuring out how to unscrew the opening to the tank, he escapes “to comb the corridors of the lab”:
When In the morning she found that rag,
She wept at love’s barbed lure. How far
We urge ourselves to travel
To nuzzle a breast, tongue a navel
Or fondle even a wisp of fur…
The unfortunate creature’s transformation into a mere “rag” suggests, too, a rag doll. Which brings us back to Kokoschka. In the midst of the custody battle in “Vs.,” in which bat puncture requires subsequent rabies shots (“You must have heard me scream”), the poet buys
Who wept real tears & wet herself silly
& began to counsel me on joy.
If the last remark puzzles you, bear in mind the similarity of poems to dolls.
Waters is wisely capable of replacing the whatness of loss with the howness of effect. From the perspective of dementia, the phrase what’s wrong with you? turns the tables on any discussion centered on who has a right to speak and be believed. In “Minecraft,” on a visit to the “memory care facility,” the grandson goes missing. Grandmother freaks out, and her son attempts to reassure her: “mom I say he’s here but don’t tell her/ he’s building pyramids.” You can write off a lot to cognitive dissonance, he seems to say, and yet there is an exchange. This sad dispensation—spatial, temporal, emotional, social—finds a translation in grammar: unmoored phrases and gapped fragments replace the seeming (if soothing) narrative of conventional sentence-making. Looking at the poems in this section without zooming in to read the words, you might be reminded of your college days, feeling the stately strangeness of Anglo-Saxon poems. It’s as if he wants to look back and signal the tradition through which literary English emerged to embrace such human difficulties as are emergent in coming to terms with the final stages of generational communication. Memory blinks out, and only familial love in the form of poetic tracework is left to confront the looming aftermath.
That tracework is also the subject of “sequins,” in which we learn that his
prisming my mother
in dresses of light during WWII
then folded & stored in a cedar chest
girlhood gone the millions dead
those tinselly rags exhumed by my nephew
retro rage for the gay pride parade
lip-syncing drag queen I Will Survive
dazzling her darlings their disco ball alive.
Waters’ ability to connect the repurposing of sequins, festooning them over the abyss of the Shoah to embellish a gay pride parade, is a move both shocking and tender.
He is upbraided by her a number of times: “and you poet didn’t you ever learn to read?” (“Primer”). But the tone of disapproval, including self-disapproval – “I murdered myself” (“Criminal”) – leaves the shuttering malaise to make room for humor, intended or otherwise (e.g., one guy on a reality show gets his junk stung by a wasp). This contrasting uplift even comes to include an ode to Mel Tormé, who enters the poem crooning, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”—his mother’s request. Who knew (or was it inevitable?) that The Velvet Fog would get his chance to be immortalized in verse? Is it the fault of poetry, I wondered, or the secret of Mel Tormé? Such self-effacing recourse comes in handy when you’re dealing with the big issues like dissolution.
The final third of the book turns from the vigil of another to self-scrutiny and the question of “sin,” that old word whose weight can knock the wind out of you. Waters is not a religious poet in any conventional sense (his background derives from both Catholic and Jewish ancestors), and his God is left as a capitalized Whatever. But that fact doesn’t relieve him of the obligation to self-reckon. Like other human beings, a poet has to deal with the material and the immaterial, and if possible, to make an account of both dimensions. Waters has frequently dealt with matters of the body as a vehicle, a thing drawn to swiving, but slowed by time and deterioration. It’s an old binary, for sure, but it’s also a conundrum of the sort that poetry feels almost designed to explore. He has become, in a half-century career, an adept in the service of this exploration.
If sin is the danger to the self, the sins of the world and its dangers require a lot more than self-accountability. The passage from innocence to experience is the one we remember from Blake, but it is Waters’s aim, not to enshrine innocence, but to introduce his children to the kinds of dangers they will surely face. And there is, let’s be real, much incoming to provide the teaching moment. In “Electric Fence,” the title alone is likely to guarantee danger, notwithstanding the “indifferent” cows who drool nearby. It’s here the poet imagines an electrified “human chain,” not just of family, but “citizen to citizen unstoppably.” In “American Pastoral,” it’s the poisoning of the green world itself —by pesticides—in which he imagines a
Toddler who grasps
The solace of color, the consolations
Of green, but not yet
The word or the sin or the murder
Descending upon grass…
In “The Wall,” the family tours a Spanish cathedral against whose walls neighbors executed other neighbors during what is referred to euphemistically as “’30s unrest”:
Jabs a finger into each hole that’s within reach.
He touches history, its evidence of death,
Its language of bullet & bayonet.
Touching history also means being in it, and so, not surprisingly, a note of self-elegy arises in the collection’s final poems. We are aware of the dangers we have already passed through, and dangers in whose murk we’re still at risk: racism, climate change, the rise of authoritarianism. In “One Caw,” he concludes,
The police car stops.
The boy stares. How many hundreds.
One caw. Then silence.
Something horrible about to happen.
In the final poem (“Nobody’s Poem”), he finds his library, including books and literary journals in which the name “Michael Waters” appears, alongside X, Y, and Z. It is here in these close confines that “The dust spouts again the words of poets.” Which, as destinies go, doesn’t sound very enviable, does it? It is a kind of dream in which the name unhooks from the poem, and the journal contributor’s poem itself is left to sleep in its dusty reliquary. The process continues,
Until someone down the decades draws it down
To drag one finger down the list of contributors:
Nobody, nobody, nobody, name, nobody, nobody
All the way to the cold damp ground.
We are left to ponder who that someone might be: very likely someone like us. Caw is by turns witty, rigorous, wise, tender, and sad. It has a long throw to it, but that throw doesn’t come at the expense of attention to detail and nuance, of artistic finish. On the contrary, it suggests that if something like a “human chain” were possible to imagine, this collection would provide the evidence for its reality.
David Rigsbee is the author of, most recently, This Much I Can Tell You (2017) and Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews (2015), both from Black Lawrence Press. His translation of Dante’s Paradiso is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. He is a contributing editor for The Cortland Review.