Here’s a 2011-or-so piece I published online with Poetry Northwest that seems to have since dematerialized from their webspace. Enjoy.
Amadon, Samuel. Like a Sea. USA: University of Iowa Press, 2010.
Groves, Daniel. The Lost Boys. USA: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
Willis, Elizabeth. Address. USA: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.
HEADLANDS AND HEADSTONES: NEW BOOKS BY SAMUEL AMADON, DANIEL GROVES, AND ELIZABETH WILLIS
Robert Frost once asserted that the poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom—“the figure is the same as for love.” Samuel Amadon’s Like a Sea and Daniel Groves’s The Lost Boys, both debut collections, express delight through very different temperaments, and conclude (if that’s the right word) in wildly divergent sorts of intelligence. In her fifth book, Address, Elizabeth Willis delights in juxtaposition and slippage, seeming wiser through an adamant refusal of book-smarts.
A first look at Samuel Amadon’s poetry suggests the academic, ambiguous, “well-wrought” American poetry of the 1940s and 50s. You can hear Wallace Stevens in his inquisitive, investigative language:
Were I to ask where you were staying
would that be what moves our conversation
beyond whether repetition
has more to offer than repetition
will be enough when I say
it has been enough is not enough… (20)
But, as this quotation suggests, his syntax is oddly-wrought and tricky; his poems hazard more than they assert. What is enoughness, in speech, understanding, acquaintance? The tercets Amadon is fond of (also Stevens-y at first look) wobble beneath the reader like three-legged stools, preventing her from feeling entirely stable or balanced within the poems. This imbalance is most pleasurable when it matches the poems’ logical upsets, the back-and-forth of Amadon’s continuous present:
I could not sound like anyone to anyone,
but often meant to almost (as
rocking is from weaving) sound
local, as there should be more
local, I started staying here, how-
ever I sounded saying
I can be here again, saying it over
in a way so it piled, in a way
piling, as we cannot see it
ending, where it is from, the reason for
it is in fact frightening
to hear so much anywhere in anyone (39).
This passage, a page from the book’s long braided-in sequence “Each H,” suggests Amadon’s debt to two other modernists, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein. It also brings up a question central to his (as well as Stein’s) work: that of the personality of the author’s expression. Stein’s method, in Tender Buttons and elsewhere, suggested that “writing what the writing is writing” would allow the author access to a primary language, one free of preference, memory, and comparison, given purely over to seeing. In this timeless observing state, as Amadon puts it, “It was always different after there were no moments / it was always different after” (4). Amadon tries at times for a Steinian sight-through-words, denotative daily speech given up in favor of a dense present perceptual instant whose shape he makes palpable through the folds and wrinkles of his syntax. In “North of Providence,” Amadon writes:
bells to walls. Then don’t listen. Go out
into isn’t that just a brighter not
thinking things through? Yes, or it’s what forgives
our not knowing how a lawn exists
after snow’s been packed across our eyes (42).
The claims of Amadon’s speaker are elusive, but despite his trolleying syntax, his themes of blindness, timelessness, and diverted attention, Like a Sea is a serene, reflective book. There are no big finishes. The book’s centerpiece, “Each H,” ends in muted puzzlement (“A day more like others than itself is over” ), and, over the collection, the reader is invited to lie down in a certainty that feels something like simple possibility:
To know what to say as what to say
Was significant as significance
Becomes not what but that you (59)
Daniel Groves’s The Lost Boys is a debut of exuberance and teeter-totter balance, detailing and formal distance. Studious in his eclecticism (few other first books, I bet, acknowledge prior publications in both Action Yes and the Yale Review), Groves departs from daily subjects into pun-dazzled lyric performances. You couldn’t exactly call them meditations, and they’re certainly not essays. But lines like these—
[C]oherence comes unhinged, the numbers numb,
even as letters let on, ad museum,
that reason sponsors all, its tired and true
calling will set right the label libel,
inferred infrastructure, diatriabal
initiation, folio a deux… (9)
—suggest the hypertrophic development of Groves’ Byronic (Nash-ish?) formal wit, and a worked-at music that’s extremely rare in contemporary poetry. (And this isn’t even getting to Groves’s “this coital moral” pun on page 37.) But beneath this dazzle, Groves shapes his poems with a nimble, forward-moving pentameter and the pleasurable setup-and-kicker rhythm of his rhyme. These are old-fashioned, unquaint pleasures: it’s hard to resist when Groves’s speaker describes himself “remote from any motive / except the unacceptably emotive” (37).
Groves’s punning can be illuminating—one poem calls New York “the apple of all our idleness, the idol / of all our appetite” (42)—but, as is the case for most poets of this sort of formal vigor and wit, Groves joins opposites to emphasize what still separates them. The distance between the mundane, slightly trashy culture he writes of and the exactness of his forms is itself a sort of pun. It takes an acidic, arch sort of humor to hear in the idle of a motorcycle “a certain choked-up fin-de-siecle / refrain augmented by a reverb Om” (18), or to place “soft-core spree” to chime oddly in the same line with “esprit de corps” (53). The Lost Boys’s seventeen-part title poem is about many things—a lost love, a return to New York City, the child placing himself in every character that catches his imagination—but its capaciousness is mainly about this very energy, these ironic unions and breezy passages in between.
The surfaces of the poems in The Lost Boys can point the reader away, on first pass, from lovely subtler moments: rhymes like “mind wills” / “windmills” (38); the counterpointed iambic of “mosquito buzz, rhythmic cicadian cry” (30); the suggestive short-phrase music of descriptions like “a morbid bid for more” (5) or a city’s “incensed, disinfectant / miasma” (18). The reader must be ready to follow Groves into his punchlines while still keeping an ear out for his melodies. She may also be tasked to tread back carefully through such mouth-and-mind-fuls as:
collector’s items, the catalog’s invented
inventory, filially file
cartfuls, in post-Cartesian denial,
of nihil enisled (6).
In moments like these, Groves’s composition (like that of James Merrill’s early “word-painting” poems) is meticulous, but his outline is elusive. This passage is, get it?, about librarians.
Against these feats, Groves sets a few sweeter, melancholy pieces. The monologue “Psyche” is possessed of a loneliness and poise makes me think of Auden. In it, the goddess of Keats’s ode speaks wearily of inspiration:
Yet, while I breathe,
all is self-flattery, long-winded drafts, and underneath
well-worn, through layers of hollowed figures, from headland to headstone…
The doubt and reticence of the poem make a nice complement to Groves’s technical agility; the reader, persuaded, sighs along with Psyche. And the grief-struck funeral poem “So Long” mourns movingly the loss of one kept, in life, at “arm’s length”:
Underfoot, you may be understood,
as one assumes a silence, among the dead,
reciprocal of what remains unsaid. (60)
In such moments the book feels least in the thrall of the poet’s gifts. Just as Groves’s speaker at one point projects upon “historic structures (fallen, nearly gone) / the will to restoration” (61-62), his poems work hard at their reworkings, foreground their flourishes, lean hard from old virtues to modern subjects. I wonder if Groves’s later collections will sing with more art and less craft, will impress readers less and move them more.
What impresses in Address is subtler. Elizabeth Willis’s slippages, hints, and verbal knots seem resistant to close attention; the reader becomes aware of, in place of shine and music, a vast mapless interior space. “An astrolabe isn’t thinking / of a concrete lane / or unconquerable interior” (6), Willis puts it early in the book: there’s very little practical, or grand, in Address, and no forcible ordering of an inner life through epistemology. Willis’s speaker announces herself only (to reference Fanny Howe’s prose) as Unlocatable, as Hidden. The first of Address’s two poems entitled “Sonnet” opens:
To never say “I am solved
by this shadow”
I panic the way
against the wooded cheek
I am not bored
On this hidden fence
I erase everything (31)
What is the reader to make of this speaking self? It feels not like the writer, but more like the voice of the poem itself, or of the aloof perceiving self far back in the head. This voice is enchanting company, whether as implicitly political as in “Vernacular Architecture” (“love’s office is devotion / to the ungoverned” ) or as personal as in “Ruskin” (“Dear Rose, I think / that I would like to be / a weapon like a pillow” ). As another poem puts it:
This is the I
I’ve learned to speak to
way, way out there
in the luggage and cabbage (50-51)
This is also to say that a lot has been left out of Address’s poems. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that seems to have begun from so deep in the poet’s mind. Willis has a knack (apparent in her 2003 book, Turneresque) for irregular, subdued couplets, an ideal form for her way of setting chatty speech against gnomic, spell-weaving expressions that seem to have crossed to the reader over a great territory of silence:
Coffee won’t make you clairvoyant
just a little shaky
You step into doubt
like the baking of biscuits
It’s something to do
with your mourning (54)
The book is old-fashioned in a manner different from Groves’s Lost Boys. Willis calls back to an English poetry not of nimbleness and satiric wit but of curse, enchantment, and incantation. The witch is a central image in Address: she who “speak[s] the fury” (52) of her private, immemorial magic against a sick society. “The happiness of an entire house may be ruined by witch hair touching a metal cross…. A witch may cry out sharply at the sight of a known criminal dying of thirst” (21), warns one poem in prose. This “fury” brings Willis’s speakers closest to our daily life, in poems like “Year-End Review” or the lengthy “This Is Not a Poem about Katherine Harris”:
…I am a firm
advocate of low-carb monosyllabic
government and have committed adultery
with unemployment figures and have enjoyed
a pun or two of my own (34).
In these poems, Willis’s wit and obliquity sit uneasily alongside a barely-suppressed quiver of outrage, a desire to speak absolutely firmly (there’s even punctuation!) about what is ephemeral, appetitive, and insane in contemporary America. The hopes of Address are modest—“a bridge can be a figure / of a flood” (44)—but durable. The triumph is that Willis’s poems, in wishing for reservoirs of silence, flashes of sanity, and flickers of heat, create a space where these things seem to come into permanence. I closed the book wishing I never had to leave.