Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry




Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry by Lisa Russ Spaar

The anatomy of a second book of poems

November 10th, 2012 reset - +

A SECOND BOOK OF POEMS isn’t exactly like the under-photographed second child, the salutatorian, the beauty pageant runner-up, the bridesmaid, the vice-president, the associate chair, the jumped-the-shark television sit-com or movie sequel, the silver medalist, or the second largest car rental company with corporate motto “We try Harder.” But accompanying the writing, publication, notice, and shelf-life of second books of poems are a flock of anxieties, expectations, and other social, cultural, economic, and circumstantial forces that can often lead to their being overlooked and under-reviewed. Given, as David Wojahn once wrote, that publishing a book of poetry in America at all is “akin to dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon,” what is it about authors’ second poetry books that warrants our special attention?

First books of poems tend to be repositories of material that has been written and circulated among readers in various forms and venues for a while, sometimes for decades, but more often, in the case of first books published by graduates of MFA and PhD programs, over several semesters’ and post-degree-years’ worth of workshops, writing, and revision. These debut collections are often flawed, but in interesting ways; in many cases, they owe rather clearly to their authors’ teachers and literary influences. Provisions exist for first books (many of them costly for the writer, both literally — reading and entry fees, printing costs, postage — and emotionally — all that rejection), which often appear under the auspices of one of the country’s proliferation of first-book contests. A collection that has garnered a first-book award or that is being published as the result of winning a judged competition is more likely than other poetry books to receive notice and reviews. Perhaps this owes, in part, to our cultural preoccupation with winning. We often betray an impatience with what may seem to have lost its hotness or luster, its sense of embodying the moment. Could this be an especially American phenomenon? Obsessed as we are with competition, no realm of experience would appear to be safe from the possibility of being voted off the island (think of all those cupcake wars, storage locker battles, top model catfights, and my favorite, The Biggest Loser, not to mention the atmosphere of top-down metrics of quantifiable merit and value infecting even the lofty halls of academia). Our society is addicted, with a velocity aided by quicksilver technologies, to rankings, to polls, to who wins, to what’s top shelf, to who makes and sells the most, to who comes in first, and with whatever is trending and embodying the latest thing.

Second books are precarious but crucial, both for the poet and for the reader interested in a poet’s oeuvre. They suggest, for one thing, that the poet won't be a one-hit wonder. They are often more intentional and gestate more quickly than first books. Second books are also often more difficult to get published than first books, a situation that comes as a dismaying surprise to first-book authors. Because prize-winning first books many times appear with presses which are under no obligation to commit to ongoing publication of these awardees, even recipients of the nation’s most prestigious first book awards, like the Yale Younger Poets Prize, find themselves scrambling around and even entering the contest rounds once again in attempt to kick the second book through the door.

Second collections may be less raw than first collections: more polished, assured, self-possessed, and, at times, more careful. Alternately (I’m thinking of Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, for instance, whose second books, Diving into the Wreck and Ariel, respectively, were "break-out" texts), they may be more daring, fierce, and full of brilliant risk. In second collections, we see poets more consciously acknowledging and wielding their obsessions, experimenting with their style, extending their range. Instead of being about "where have I come from," these books often concern themselves with "where are my texts taking me? will I / can I keep writing? do I have the capacity to evolve and continue to refresh my practice?” In the second book, the poet may be getting his or her land legs. Sometimes the second book is a poet’s high water mark. For others it is a bellwether. And for still others, since a pair of books is not assurance of a sequence, of a “career,” the second book can signal or constitute, for an array of reasons, the end of the road. Sometimes a poet’s career is truncated by death or illness. In other cases, the second books themselves falter. A first book, as I have suggested — often long in the making, with the benefit of having passed through many hands and under many eyes — may set up expectations for success that a poet attempts to sustain in the second book by trying to suss out what will be rewarded or accepted, or by following a perceived formula. The result can be repetitious and, worse, stalled and self-parodic.

These are generalizations, of course, with exceptions at every turn. And the climate for second book publication would seem to be improving in recent years, with new opportunities in electronic media, social networking, and marketing changing the publication game, and with presses like Tupelo, Elixir, Anhinga, Omnidawn, and others opening up their awards to second as well as inaugural manuscripts. But what one hopes to find in a second book by any poet, however it finds the light of day, is something new: a text that dares, that deepens, that swerves back into and then beyond the reach and promise of the first book. Lynda Hull’s Star Ledger and Kerri Webster’s Grand & Arsenal are second books of just such luminous originality and agility. Published some 20 years apart (coincidentally, both by the University of Iowa Press: Star Ledger won the Press’s Edwin Ford Piper Award and Grand & Arsenal its Iowa Poetry Prize), each has a great deal to impart about the crucible of aesthetic and thematic becoming that constitutes a second book of poems.

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I was already in love with Lynda Hull’s Hart Crane-haunted first collection, Ghost Money (University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), when Star Ledger blew off the top of my head in 1991. Ghost Money proffered a world of noir autobiography, of eerie, atmospheric urban beauty and of aesthetic and cultural savvy, a psychic turf of landscapes charged with jazzy, incendiary damage, disturbance, and Hull’s sheer gift for writing emotional and literal place into existence, as in “Contagion”:

The air swamps, static, overheated,

the kind of weather that founders a city

before a plague occurs. A fever of starlings

weights the oak’s thick branches, their

nattering cries — sex, sex. The leaves sear

hectic as the consumptive heroine’s cheeks

in the pages of the 19th-century novel

you read before the open window. She dies

so piteously; her young aristocrat bears

orchids to the antiseptic charity ward

too late to say it mattered. She coughs.

You close the book. The air stains now

with smoke, the farmers clearing stubble

from fields in this dim province of burning.

I was not prepared, however, for the exquisite majesty of Star Ledger. Gone were the few hesitancies of Ghost Money: the obvious stylistic debts of homage to beloved poets, the occasional vestiges of hyper-enjambment and slack line fulfillment that characterized much American poetry in the 1970s and early 1980s, the very rare tendency to either shut a poem down too soon or to extend it past its knife-cut edge, as though Hull weren’t yet sure what to do with the enormity of her vision and the scope of her talent. Instead, each poem in Star Ledger, varied as the poems are in subject and range, sounds with an anvil stroke of gorgeous, pain-freighted beauty and inevitability. Her line extends in this book, each richly fulfilling itself while gesturing both backward and ahead, panning out and moving close in with cinematic daring; lush vocabularies exchange their secrets; dangerous, yearning bodies and streets turn into one another everywhere; strophes float and overlap in pavilions, terraces, cirrus strata of language, as in these opening stanzas from “Love Song during Riot with Many Voices, Newark, 1967”:

The bridge’s iron mesh chases pockets of shadow

and pale through blinds shuttering the corner window

 

to mark this man, this woman, the young eclipse

their naked bodies make — black, white, white,

black, the dying fall of light rendering bare walls

 

incarnadine, color of flesh and blood occluded

 

in voices rippling from the radio: Saigon besieged,

Hanoi, snipers and the riot news helicoptered

from blocks away. All long muscle, soft

 

hollow, crook of elbow bent sequined above the crowd,

nightclub dancers farandole their grind and slam

into streets among the looters. Let’s forget the 58¢

 

lining his pockets, forget the sharks and junkyards

 

within us . . . .

This thrilled me: to discover that an already accomplished, enviably talented poet could and would venture even further into more complicated thematic and linguistic territory, pulling off depth charges, putting language under fresh pressure in order to exact an evincement of what at times seemed like apocalyptic stakes of wonder and despair. Hull’s original and breath-reavingly jagged illuminations were, for me, cause for drop-jawed admiration, but they were also an invitation, a challenge to me as a poet — to gamble, to risk a Keatsian fine excess, and to mix high lyricism with vernacular and the quotidian — to incur and bear the consequences of such ravaged and ravishing making. In an elegy for trumpeter Chet Baker, “Lost Fugue for Chet, Chet Baker, Amsterdam, 1988,” Hull writes:

                        . . . So easy to get lost, these cavernous

 

brown cafés. Amsterdam, & its spectral fogs, its

bars & softly shifting tugboats. He builds once more

the dense harmonic structure, the gabled houses.

Let’s get lost. Why court the brink & then step back?

“Why court the brink & then step back?” The question informs and helps to articulate the “dense harmonic structure, the gabled houses” of language and perception, the great achievement of Star Ledger.

After Lynda Hull’s untimely death in 1994, her husband, David Wojahn, published a posthumous collection, The Only World (1995), a book that builds on the intensities of Star Ledger and is, if possible, even more stirring in its stunning conflation of inner space and place: “But I was talking / about the red velvet jacket // that hangs even now in the mind flaring its slow veronicas / in recollection’s wind that breathes / the mineral glamour of cornices & pilasters, districts / that burned years ago” from “Red Velvet Jacket.” When Star Ledger went out of print for a few years, I continued to use it in my classes, circulating it in Xerox copies. At one point, I loaned my precious original copy to a student and never got it back; the replacement copy I ordered from AbeBooks belonged at one time, according to the stamp inside the front cover, to the Free Public Library in Paterson, NJ, a detail I feel that my sister New Jersey poet Lynda Hull would appreciate as much as I do.

When I have occasion to speak with students and other poets, I always ask if they have heard of Hull. I am dismayed when some have not, and am quick to recommend her work, and especially Star Ledger. Thanks to the steadfast efforts of Wojahn, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Mark Doty, the Re/View Series Editor at Graywolf Press, Lynda’s collected poems are now available from Graywolf in a handsome edition that appeared in 2006. In Star Ledger’s “Magical Thinking,” Hull writes, “It is a common human longing to want utterly / to vanish from one life and arrive transformed / in another.” In the two decades plus change that I have been reading the work of Lynda Hull, her work never fails to transport, transform, and return me to my self, altered and inspired.

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I came to Kerri Webster’s first poetry collection, We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone, at the recommendation of Carl Phillips, a poet whose work and sensibilities I so respect that I would search out and read anything he endorsed. This is my favorite way to read, I think — to find out which poets, living or dead, the poets I admire also admire, and follow the labyrinth, the trail, the continuum. Perhaps my second favorite way to read poems is to hungrily await and then devour a new book by an already beloved poet. Infatuated with the meta-materiality and elliptical, somatic hagiography of We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone (“There’s a phrase for absence gullied / just short of reckoning, ghost-damaging your rising / and falling weight inside me, there’s a verb for slow peril / logged in a commonplace book dog-eared and oily — / finger, finger. You mark the chapter where drowning / mirages into understanding, the whole book stab-stitched / or was it accordianed, a flaunt of unfolding and the pilgrim / drinking from a dirty glass” from “Lexicon”) — the book’s field poetics saturated with the insomniacal ardors of Stevens, Rilke, Cornell, and others — I eagerly awaited Webster’s second book, Grand & Arsenal, published earlier this year.

Like Hull’s Star Ledger (which takes its title from the name of the Newark, NJ, daily newspaper), Webster’s Grand & Arsenal (a St. Louis intersection) makes an intrepid foray into the lyric realm of psycho-spiritual place she began to explore in her first book. As iconoclastically ambitious and haunted as Dickinson,

Sometimes soul seems

a vestige — like

dewclaws — of some

earlier order,

some phylum

under glass

for the docent

to talk about:

here is the iron thing

that recurred

throughout their little

world, dug up

with rusty nails

and bits of plastic

                        (from “Keeper, Keeper”)

she is also as ecstatically vulnerable, as in this redux nod/back-talk in “Invoke” to Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” with its evocation of vexed and conditional lyric speech:

Bless me I am not myself. These days. Objects

pile on my work-bench: a flame. A seed. A heart. A brass

pig. A fat key. A creamer and pitcher also.

a number of benches have amassed a fleet

of flatnesses, some pew, some

not so pew, one with the names of tools carved

into the wood: PLANE AWL LEVEL BRACE. What happens

when you are no one’s shape. I’m stripping

paint. Where the meters

are all broken, find me.

Obsessed as she was in her first book with time, with fetish and wunderkammer cataloging, with the blur between the sacred and the secular, Webster carries her flood subject matter into new turf in Grand & Arsenal: the political and the erotic, the praised and the indicted, the oracular and the silent, for example, as in these passages from the post-apocalyptic “Postscript”:

We looked for golden birds. We looked and looked.

We issued threat advisories. Our survival kits

were beautiful: tin, tin, pocket mirrors, root foods,

anodynes. . . .

 

Dipped the sponge in vinegar. Dipped the crusts in wine.

Anointed every inch. Set the torch alight. Logged off. Came

 

close as light grew thin. Squinted the world to blur. Left

plastic flowers by the roadsides. Ate snow. Combed the dog

 

for burrs. Tied knots. Walked where heat fused sand to glass.

Forgot. Did not forget. Said outer space. Were kingly fools.

 

Were broke. Were broken. Tried to image ghosts. Measured

the particulates. Said what does that mean. And what does

 

that. Rubbed oil into our hips. Hands on our hips. Our hips

lifted to meet our hips, we gnawed the world’s bones clean.

It’s hard not simply to quote extensively from this book in order to offer ample evidence of its material texture, its matrix of intelligence, yearning, irony, and nimble shuttlings among modes that, finally, seem to me, in this second collection, to be in a newly conscious way very much about their awarenesses: as a denizen of the planet, as what Charles Wright would call a “God-fearing agnostic,” as an animal presence in an ineffable field of text and vision. At the close of “All the Way from Here,” Webster writes:

spinster in the hands of a fussy god, I give away

my startle and the geography does not disappear,

the clerks are kind, the great rivers hum along, ice-clotted

or clear. I go out among a field of antlers spread

on bedsheets, yard sale at the top of the hill, I go out

among this grand diminishment of time, this

usury: geraniumed room, hooved caller. Green

seeing, stab-stitchery. And do I swoon? I swoon. And

the bodies moved into, through — shared vagaries.

to pretend otherwise would make me a shouting child.

Subtle, intertextual, smart, Webster’s second collection takes up the fears of the first book — vulnerability, extinction, the fragility of the animal self, the fiction of the soul, of books, of language — with a “force field” of renewed and stalwart oracular watching (“I rest between breath and sky. I sky / a lot, someone says why / are you always out here, under the branches. / Seeing carves the storm in wax. / Here is the weather around my neck, silver thing / half flame half seed”). It is a rare gift to be able to “sky the sky” on so many emotional, linguistic, textual, and spiritual levels, and although Grand & Arsenal may, literally, be a city street corner, it also evokes “grand larceny” and a “grand arsenal”: Dickinson’s “Loaded Gun, ” a crux of deep and essential questioning. “How to abandon the comfort / of vigilance, the worldfire burning?” Webster asks in “Ecophilia. “I do not mean to pray: the apostasy of speech.” Like Julian Norwich’s vision of perceiving God in a hazelnut, Webster’s second book hosts a world of worlds. I look forward to her further movings — which is, finally, the great gifts of second books, of any book.

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