Noose and Hookby: Lynn Emanuel
EVEN OUR COMMON USE OF THE WORD "INSPIRATION" suggests it: some power larger than the writer we're reading, some mysterious force has breathed life into the sentences, so that reading them allows us to suspend disbelief, and experience transport. Poetry in particular has long been associated with otherworldly visitations, with possession by the gods or the muses. But poetry also needs our capacity for skepticism. In fact, belief and disbelief tend to become mutually entailing in poetry. With its source in the individual voice, the poem sometimes asks us to listen beyond the dubious chatter of everyday collective life and believe in the intense singularity of individual expression. Think of the centripetal force of Emily Dickinson's quatrains. The same process can work in the reverse direction too: the poem sometimes asks us to doubt the limits of private consciousness, and move outward, believing in the restorative strength of the surrounding world. Think of the expansive sweep of Walt Whitman's lines.
Three new collections by Lynn Emanuel, C. Dale Young, and Tom Sleigh show the strength and subtlety of contemporary American poetry at its best. But they do more than that. In their unique ways, each of these books not only reflects and enacts struggles between belief and doubt, and between private and public, but also suggests what greater vitality that work might enable.
In Noose and Hook, her fourth collection of poems, Lynn Emanuel takes her skepticism about the very integrity of the self as her starting point. In the past, Emanuel's poems have grown from dark spaces, from conflicts both personal and social. But this new work arises from a more fundamental crisis: The methods of poetic autobiography no longer feel truthful to the speaker, especially in a time of war, when absorption in the personal seems an evasion, a denial. Any number of "experimental" poets (among whom Emanuel is not usually counted) would share this suspicion. What distinguishes Emanuel is that her suspicion never ossifies into a set position, but remains part of an evolving drama. Consider the ending of "Personal experiences are chains and balls ...," a poem from the first section of the book:
I will never again write from personal experience.
Since the war began I have discovered
(1) My Life Is Unimportant and (2) My Life Is Boring.
But now, as Gertrude Stein wrote from Culoz in 1943,
Now, we have an occupation.
These lines read like a Möbius strip, twisting between sincerity and irony. The speaker declares her wish to abandon autobiographical sincerity in what, ironically, turns out to be a sincere (even "confessional") moment of autobiography. This passage, like so many in the book, ripples with formal tensions; the tone, for example, wobbles between anguish and humor. Even a single word can spin with competing dramatic forces: "occupation" seems at first to carry the military meaning, but could it also mean a more metaphorical or personal invasion? Could it mean ...read more