Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry by Tom Andrews and Jessica Greenbaum

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Jessica Greenbaum, Tom Andrews




Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry by Tom Andrews and Jessica Greenbaum by Lisa Russ Spaar

Second books of poetry by Tom Andrews and Jessica Greenbaum

December 15th, 2012 reset - +

IN OUR ONGOING SERIES Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry, poet and essayist Lisa Russ Spaar takes a bimonthly look at second books of poems, which are — for an array of reasons and in various ways — often overlooked. Each column will pair a second book of poems that appeared 20 or more years ago with a recent second book, published within the past two years. In Spaar’s first column, pairing Lynda Hull’s Star Ledger and Kerri Webster’s Grand & Arsenal, she writes:

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 sitcom 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?

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In an interview in the Winter II 1989 issue of The Paris Review, J. D. McClatchy asks Charles Wright: “When you read through your early books today, do you have the sense of encountering a distinctive ‘Charles Wright’ style in them?” To which Wright replies, “It depends on how far back you go. Before a poem called ‘Dog Creek Mainline’ in Hard Freight, no; after it, yes.”

Hard Freight is, of course, Wright’s second book of poems, appearing in 1973, just three years after the publication of his first collection, The Grave of the Right Hand, in 1970, and it occurs to me that one thing that happens in many second books of poems, and one reason it is so important to pay special attention to them, is that often the poet begins to come into a fuller sense of earlier inklings — linguistic textures, rhetorical gestures, thematic obsessions, syntactical motions, line length, pacing, and so forth — that will give his or her work the feel of him or her about it. “As far as I can see, there is no great art without great style,” Wright goes on to say in that Paris Review interview, “however sophisticated or unsophisticated it might be. All major writers are great stylists [...] Major style usually, if not always, signals real substance [...] When everything clicks, style is Style, everything inextricably bound up in language and its ambitions, everything palpable in the isness, the radiance that language offers. It’s a concentration of the particular, I suppose, despite the gravity of the general. Transcendence inside its own skin. In other words, it tends to be not just how you write, but what you write as well, and why you write it.”

One of the great stylists — and one of the best, and under-known, poets — of the past 20 years is Tom Andrews, who was born in 1961 and whose untimely death in 2001 from complications of a blood disorder cut short the trajectory of a remarkable life and career. That Andrews was an adolescent motocross rider before he discovered he had hemophilia, and also a juggler, an erstwhile editor of a mathematics journal, the holder of a hand clapping record from the Guinness Book of World Records, a colleague and teacher of legendary wit and generosity, a brilliant critic with ambitions to become a stand-up comedian, and a philosopher capable of rolling downhill perched in a handstand atop two skateboards may signal some of the prodigious range of interests, vitality, and ardor that contribute to and characterize his poetic style, especially as it began to manifest itself in his second collection, The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle.

Presumably, one has to write poorly before one writes well, but Tom would seem to have been something of a prodigy and exception in this regard. Jack Ridl, one of his professors at Hope College, where Andrews was an undergraduate, describes how he approached Tom, then a junior taking a playwriting class, and suggested that he try writing poetry. At Ridl’s recommendation, Andrews began by choosing 25 or so American poems and writing poems in their manner. “I was dumbfounded,” writes Ridl. “It was as if each of these poets he had selected had written their next poem.”

Tom seems never to have looked back after that, going on to take writing classes at Hope, serving as an intern at FIELD, winning a Hoyns Fellowship in the MFA Program in Poetry at the University of Virginia (where he worked with Wright and Gregory Orr), and eventually garnering the National Poetry Series award for his first book, The Brother’s Country (Persea, 1990), as well as, later, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Poetry Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. He taught at Ohio University and at Purdue University, and in addition to his second collection, The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, he published during his lifetime a memoir, Codeine Diary: True Confessions of a Reckless Hemophiliac (1999) and two edited collections of criticism, one about William Stafford and one about Charles Wright. He was 40 when he died, leaving behind two unpublished manuscripts, 25 Short Films About Poetry and The Temptation of Saint Augustine, which are now collected, along with the first two books and two late uncollected poems, in Random Symmetries: The Collected Poems of Tom Andrews (Oberlin College Press, 2002).

I cherish my original copy of The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle for many reasons: its inscription from Tom; the photograph on the cover, taken by the poet’s father, showing teenaged Andrews, in helmet, gloves, and boots, straddling in a standing position his motorcycle in the heat of a motocross race, both tires off the ground, elevated above the rubble, a blurry crowd of onlookers and a wintry stand of trees behind him. Of the collection’s many fine poems, two — the title poem and “Codeine Diary” — possess Wright’s “Dog Creek Mainline” signature moment, and convey an ushering in of original style, of writing that is happening on all available and apt registers: an experience of a poet writing out of and into all that he is.

I don’t want to suggest that The Brother’s Country is immature. It is a beautiful, moving book of poems already electric with Andrews’s flood subjects — the body, illness, the Silence that is God, the capabilities and shortfalls of language — and animated by his smarts, his wit (one poem is called “May I Read You a Few Lines from Pepys’ Diary?”), and his formal innovation, intertextuality, and hybrid interest in borrowing discourses and techniques from other disciplines, among them philosophy, painting, and cinema. Charles Wright, in a preface to Random Symmetries, writes, “I kept all of [Tom’s] poems from our workshops at the University of Virginia, two years worth. In going through them (from the mid-1980s) I was rather astounded to find that every one of them had found its way into his first book, The Brother’s Country. Now, how many of us could claim such a sure sense of his path and the worth of his poems at such an early stage? Certainly no one I know. But Tom, as I say, had an appointment, just this side of Samarkand, it turned out, and was already on his way.”

Still, as is the case with many first books, the poems in The Brother’s Country and even a few in The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle, owe stylistically to the poets Tom so clearly admired — Wallace Stevens, Wright, Paul Celan — and they also at times wear (although very well) some of the linear and syntactical gestures so prevalent among poets who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s — thinly realized and frequently enjambed lines, for instance, and a kind of stones-and-bones personal, first-person oracular earnestness (could this be the legacy of 20th-century confessionalism and of William Carlos Williams’s brand of vers libre, taken too far?).

A quick glance at the pages of Andrews’s second book reveals a dramatic move toward a longer, more meditative and fulfilled line, with juxtaposed and layered strophes and passages of prose, along with borrowings from the stage notes of dramatic scripts (one thinks back to Andrews’s early playwriting class at Hope College). As its epigraph (“For the sin against the HOLY GHOST IS INGRATITUDE”) signals, the title poem owes to Christopher Smart’s ecstatic, litanic, anaphoric Jubilate Agno. But as it moves into its own province of prayer and thanksgiving —
 

May the Lord Jesus Christ bless the hemophiliac’s motorcycle, the smell of knobby tires,

Bel-Ray oil mixed with gasoline, new brake and clutch cables and handlebar grips,

the whole bike smothered in WD40 (to prevent rust, and to make the bike shine),

may He divine that the complex smell that simplified my life was performing the work of the spirit,

a window into the net of gems, linkages below and behind the given material world,

my little corner of the world’s danger and sweet risk, a hemophiliac dicing on motocross tracks ... ,
 

— we see that we are also witnessing an embodiment of something more than a voice, although that’s part of it. What’s happening in this poem is akin to what Wright says about finding one’s style, which is about discovering and enacting “transcendence inside its own skin. In other words, it tends to be not just how you write, but what you write as well, and why you write it.” How not to read these lines, for example, as a kind of humble and grateful stylistic and aesthetic manifesto?          

                                    ... as I look upward to the past —

friends who taught me to look at the world luminously in front of my eyes,

to find for myself the right rhythm of wildness and precision, when to hold back and when to let go,

each of them with a style, a thumbprint, a way of tilting the bike this way or that out of a germ shot, or braking heavily into a corner,

may He hear a listening to the sure song of His will in those years,

for they flooded me with gratitude that His informing breath was breathed into me,

gratitude that His silence was the silence of all things, His presence palpable everywhere in His absence ...?
 

“Codeine Diary” takes the stylistic and thematic moxie of “The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle” even more deeply into the realm of crisis, illness, dark humor, and rapture. Temporally, the poem proceeds, in loose journal poetics, as a sequence of fragmentary notations, recollections, and tangents. In the present tense, the speaker, a hemophiliac, has accidentally fallen on the ice and is now in hospital, waiting for the blood pooled in his limbs to be absorbed at last and the joints opened again, “like a fist or a jonquil.” But the poem is very meta, and contains juxtaposed layerings and frames within frames. There is the hospital room; within that room is the diary being kept by the speaker; within that diary are recollections of all sorts, including not only details about his hospital roommate and his visitors and medical procedures, but also memories about the death of his brother (whose blood, ironically, clotted too much, requiring dialysis), motocross racing, and dreams. Within the diary is an evocation of a scrapbook, in which there are love notes from childhood sweethearts (“Dear Tom, Try to come out if you can, but if you can’t that’s o.k. I can play till about 4:00 or 5:00. I hope you can come out. Will you walk with me today? Circle YES NO”), newspaper clippings of his 11-year-old self winning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for clapping his hands for 14 hours and 31 minutes (a hilarious section recounts a family visit to the local Pizza Hut, during which the young narrator continues to clap his hands under the table while his family feeds him root beer through a straw) and an account of the speaker’s job copy editing for Mathematical Reviews:
 

There is a mathematical process, useful to physicists and probability theorists, called the “self-avoiding random walk.” Walter, one of MR’s physics editors, once explained it to me as a succession of movements along a lattice of given dimensions, where the direction and length of each move is randomly determined, and where the walk does not return to a point already walked on. I almost wept with delight.

Walter looked confused. “You studied randomness in school?” he said, earnestly.
 

This notion of the “self-avoiding random walk” is crucial to Andrews’s stylistic innovation and leap forward in his second book. It allows him to embed his “narratives” in the way of nesting dolls or Chinese boxes, as suggested above, while at the same time conveying in time the most tender, vulnerable, and painful content without a whiff of self-indulgence or confessional whinging. Indirection, juxtaposition, layering, tonal shifts — all allow Andrews, as he says in a line that talks back to Whitman, to “contain multitudes.” As Andrews finds his volatile equilibrium, his shimmering level, in these new poems, he prefigures the dazzling “unfilmable films” and St. Augustine poems that comprise his posthumously published work. “Codeine Diary” ends this way, with the recovered speaker rejoining the world, “afoot,” as Whitman would say, “with his visions”:
 

Walking. Dew clings to the bunch grass.
 
The IV pushes a ghost needle back

into the vein. As I touch the bruises,

my eyes find work in the early sunlight,

my feet find their prints in the field.
 

Not only does the ending invoke Whitman’s invitation for the future reader to seek for him under his own bootsoles, but it talks back to another poem in the collection, “Praying with George Herbert in Late Winter,” in which Andrews writes:
 

... From my window I watch a boy step

backwards down the snow-covered road,
studying his sudden boot tracks.
The wedding of his look and the world!
 

The “wedding of his look and the world” — what is this, for a poet, if not true style?

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Jessica Greenbaum’s first collection of poems, Inventing Difficulty, winner of the Gerald Cable Book Award, appeared from Silverfish Review Press in 2000; her second book, The Two Yvonnes, has just been published by Princeton University Press as part of its rejuvenated Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, under the auspices of series editor Paul Muldoon. Many reasons might account for a space of 12 years between one’s first and second books, including the vicissitudes of publishers’ tastes, trends, priorities, backlogs, and schedules; health issues; the birth of children (which can protract yet deeply enrich one’s development as a writer); and the exigencies of making a living. Artistic temperament is another reason. The extraordinary short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, recent winner of a MacArthur genius award, says that she needs time to “grow a new brain” between book projects. My former teacher Donald Justice worked slowly and used to claim that he wrote about one poem a year. I once heard Lucie Brock-Broido say at a public reading that she makes a point of waiting a ritual number of days between the publication of one book and the commencement of the next. And of course it is well known among poets that sometimes it takes a long time for even a gifted, prize-winning poet to find a publisher for the second.

Whatever the reason for the decade spanning the appearance of these books, readers can be grateful that the poems collected in The Two Yvonnes are between covers at last. In it we find Greenbaum, in her clear, Brooklyn vernacular — usually in the first person — exploring the preoccupations of Inventing Difficulty: issues of story and history, of the places that we inhabit and those that inhabit us, especially the specular urban turf of the city. Unlike the kinds of difficulty in poems — contingent, modal, tactical, and ontological — typified and explored by George Steiner in his seminal essay “On Difficulty” (to which her title is clearly a shout-out) Greenbaum’s poems do not obscure with obdurate or arcane language, nor do they encode or leave the reader out, or challenge us with questions about whether or not poems exist at all. The net of language into the worlds Greenbaum evokes is transparent, quotidian, and accessible, which isn’t to say that the poems are not deeply complex and are, perhaps, even more so because of the clarity of their surfaces. “The Yellow Star That Goes With Me,” from Inventing Difficulty, for instance, is on one level a poem about first-world troubles involved as the speaker — thirsty, hungry — takes a crowded train ride into the city, but by the time we reach the end of the trip and return to the title, we realize that the speaker, hyperbolically “dying of thirst” and “absolutely freezing” and “painfully hungry,” carries with her always the truth of other dire train rides to death camps during the Holocaust. The difficult is “invented” here in that we are pitched one thing and given another, but the difficulty is real.

Stylistically, Greenbaum’s second book takes more risks in her treatment of difficulty, ambivalence, and ambiguity than she does in her first book, roughing up the matrix of text, making room for other voices, allowing for greater subjective and nominal vexation and slippage. Whereas Tom Andrews’s thematic locus is the broken body and his maturing style in the second book makes greater use of the juxtaposition and layering of fragments, Greenbaum’s flood subject is the self and other (including the city), and her stylistic project is relational, an impulse that is heightened in the second book, perhaps partly because the subjects she treats require no invention of difficulty. Their concerns are profoundly adult: a sick child, a long marriage, a longer historical memory, and challenged faith. Her largely columnar poems, which are as storied as the buildings (and individuals) about which she writes, move chiefly by relation — phrases like as if, the way, how the abound. “We name life,” she writes in “No Ideas But in Things,” “in relation to whatever we step out from when we / open the door, and whatever comes back in on its own.” She approaches that relativity differently in “Gratitude’s Anniversary:”
 

One August afternoon, decades before,

when the company of my peers felt like

rows of folding chairs I had to walk between,

I took off my fringed moccasins, climbed

over the corral’s split-post fence, and made

my way through Mr. Tremper’s evergreens

to the stream below, whose song I followed

like the tread of conversation. Hurray

for pine needles, was the message sent up

from the soles, and there was the copse-hidden

brick oven where once we baked a pie from

wild berries. I wasn’t allowed in the woods

alone; I was eleven. When I sat with my feet

in the water, just sat, ho, hum, a langoustine

darted out from a rock, like laughter, and I knew

I had come to a place of thrill and peacefulness,

heaven on earth. That day is related to this one.

The book is more formally fluid than the first, evoking for me the work of Muriel Rukeyser and Denise Levertov; Greenbaum mixes her familiar free verse building blocks with other formal structures, such as sonnets and strophes. The book also concerns itself directly, in poems like “'This’ and ‘That,’” the abecedarian “A Poem for S.,” and “What For is For” (“A portal with two guards / each turned to their left / they thought they heard / something coming [...]”) with language itself. But perhaps it is what happens within the poems themselves, in terms of temporality, narration, story, that is the most exciting development in The Two Yvonnes. The title poem exemplifies the manifold acoustics of the new book and possesses that sense of distinctive benchmark revelation of style Wright spoke of in relation to “Dog Creek Mainline.”      

In “The Two Yvonnes,” the speaker mishears and writes down a friend’s recommendation that she read a new translation of a Gogol story called “The Two Ivans.” This mistake (writing “Yvonne” for “Ivan”) gets her thinking about these male and female counterparts, “whatever her story might be / now that both of her exist in ballpoint on a line of notebook paper.” With deft narrative agility, Greenbaum then slips into a vignette about how she is mistaken for someone else, a painter, at a book party. Once the speaker’s identity is sorted out, or we think it is, the friend who does the sorting out remarks on the speaker’s dark hair, further complicating the doubling, mistaking, and tripling going on in the poem, as one person appears to turn into another everywhere. The poem concludes:
 

Your hair! It’s so much darker! Darker? I asked ... hmmmm, I stalled,

trying not to embarrass anyone. Yes! She said, happy to be her honest self,

Much, much darker! You used to have much lighter hair! Who

was she, I wondered, this sandy-haired painter who doubled for me

in their imaginations — the second Yvonne in the new translation —

and who are you? You who I thought the star of my story?
 

In this poem, and others in The Two Yvonnes, Greenbaum daringly floats her subjects over one another, and with this stylistic risk conveys a vision of the self that is at once coherent and essentially implicated in everything it is not. In “No Ideas but in Things,” Greenbaum writes: “We name life / in relation to whatever we step out from when we / open the door, and whatever comes back in on its own,” a statement that strikes me as an articulation of Greenbaum’s maturing style and stance in The Two Yvonnes.

Helen Vendler has called style the material body of poetry. In Tom Andrews’s The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle and Jessica Greenbaum’s The Two Yvonnes we are privileged to witness the ways in which intensifications of flood subject matter marry particular graphic, formal, syntactic, and figurative gestures in the crucible of poetic self-fashioning that often constitutes the second book of poems.

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