A Farther Shore: On Three New Poetry Collections

By Paul VangelistiJanuary 22, 2024

A Farther Shore: On Three New Poetry Collections

Farther by Susan Thackrey
Maths by Joel Chace
Via by Claire DeVoogd

MYTHOLOGIES FIGURE prominently in three books of poetry from last year—one a first time outing, Claire DeVoogd’s Via (Winter Editions), two by veteran practitioners, Susan Thackrey’s Farther, and Joel Chace’s Maths, both from Chax Press in Tucson. All three show a disposition toward the magic of the book as travel, a journey, rather than simply a collection of poems.

Beginning with its epigraph from the Odyssey, Susan Thackrey’s Farther is designed to be experienced as a book. The work is guided by one of the most fundamental figures in Western mythology, “many pains he suffered in his heart upon the sea,” alluding not only to the hard times of exploration but also, more specifically, to the “algea” (suffering) associated with travel. The book’s title itself, Farther, evokes these dolorous lines from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book VI) in which the dead wait to cross over the River Styx: “Their hands, in longing, / Reach out for the farther shore.”

The Virgil reference reminds me of a historical moment in Thackrey’s San Francisco: Jack Spicer’s notorious 1957 “Poetry as Magic” workshop, held at the Downtown public library, and the long questionnaire for admission to the workshop. Among the poets who participated in the workshop were Helen Adam, George Stanley, Joanne Kyger, Robin Blaser, Jack Gilbert, and Robert Duncan. (An epigraph from Duncan’s 1968 collection Bending the Bow follows the opening quotation from the Odyssey.) Under the “Tradition” section of the questionnaire one finds: “‘Thou art my master and my author,’ Dante says to Virgil. What poet could you name as Dante names Virgil?” From the outset of this “farther” voyage, the reader finds not only Homer and Dante but also Duncan and George Oppen, masters and guides for Thackrey’s poems. The poet enlivens Oppen-like rhythms (the easy, articulate energy of such classics as “Of Being Numerous”), pushing the tempo from the first section of the book, “Orders,” and its opening “Argo” (myth and magic abounding):

fifty companions brave and boisterous
fare in disgrace bereaved
of light surveilled
of fifty stories shunned
by dark a
sundering a

With rhythmical drive and imagistic clarity, Thackrey’s trim craft “sunders” the surface of language. In the final section and poem, “O,” she resolves her travel with a measure improvised more closely to Duncan’s rhythms, as Thackrey approaches the Greek “nostos” (homecoming) with a longer, less elliptical line:

entrust myself unto this dungy earth
and with the ragged boy with purpled mouth
who romps companion to the wretchedest
within this ragged throng, I’ll let wind starve
my cheeks sun blind my eyes age decay
each faculty that lets me name myself

The poem concludes with an enthralling musical movement propelled from sea to sky on that “unnamed day,” when the farthest shore will materialize:

sum of suns until the still unnamed
day that self-same ragged boy unmasks
himself and me shattering the
celestial shell blue barrier to heaven

Setting out with the names of infamous vessels, “Argo” and “Pequot,” the book moves in five parts: “Orders,” “Disorders,” “Against Orders,” “O rders” and “O.” Legendary figures appear throughout, such as Dante’s Beatrice in “Against Orders, #3”:

[…] the red
robe of Beatrice her
before picture the
world’s clothing
wholly sensation
the woman clothed in the

In “O rders #3” (subtitled “Odysseus”), the ever wily adventurer ends up in a small, empty boat, a final, blank silence:

[…] knowing where
to stop empty
landfall his
heart upon
the sea
upon the _______

The design is one of the most salient features of Farther, a rare synergy of poet and publisher that makes the reading of Thackrey’s work most memorable. In perfect-bound, five-by-seven format, the text only appears on the recto pages, while each verso has a vertical arrangement of the section title in a larger, light Gill Sans face.


Joel Chace’s Maths involves the reader in a more material project, relying on the physical/graphic aspects of language. Given the title and the book’s two sections, “Maths” and “Physics,” it’s tempting to drag in “science,” and its attendant figure of discovery. Current notions of science, however, are too polemical and polarized, with the all-pervasive encroachment of the “social sciences” into aesthetic discourse. For Chace, as he notes in his admirably brief “Building Maths: a Preface,” the poet wishes to investigate correspondences between the languages of math and physics and that of poetry. Thus, the emphasis upon experimentation and uncertainty at the heart of science.

Chace’s work in “Maths” reinvigorates the visual poem, a tradition in modern poetry that began at the start of the last century with Italian Futurism and continued well into the 1970s and ’80s with the European neo-avant-gardes, in what came to be called “extensions of poetry.” As he notes in his preface, Chace decides early on to confine (i.e., compose) each piece on a single page, to assure “visual unity.” Chace begins with a poetic text, then adds mathematical commentary and equations in his own hand, and finally, before scanning, he includes, “wisps of pen strokes between mathematical texts and equations.” In this way, Chace builds his pages on a fundamental principle of the historical (prior to World War II) avant-gardes: breaking down the distances between life and art. The material world here is represented, ironically enough, by math and physics.

As Adriano Spatola notes in his seminal study, Toward Total Poetry (Paravia, 1978; Seismicity Editions, 2008), these extensions of poetry (visual and sound) developed in the postwar period in response to the relentless incursions of mass media, which polluted the semantic levels of language, driving poets to explore alternate spaces: the phonemic and graphemic. In essence, Chace makes the page a space of intensive apprehension and, consequently, lends a radical feel to the book itself.

Chace’s collages or “events” (borrowing a term from physics to define objects in space-time) transcend analogy and metaphor, as the reader confronts the experience of the text.

In the final section, “Physics,” the 11 short pieces start with a kind of brief, one-paragraph prose introduction, “On Not Taking Physics.” Chace recalls a chemistry teacher, Mr. Dries, who serves as an exemplar for the scientific approach in his deliberate, languid movements around the high school chemistry lab:

He stopped beside us and bent at the waist to bring his eyes level with the
orange flame. For maybe three seconds he stared and then, in a blur, grabbed the
test tube by its lip and dashed it to smithereens against the cinderblock wall
behind the lab table. In a moment or two, he phased back into focus, back into his
languid body pace, and slid over to the next pair of students, without uttering a
single word. That was my introduction to scientific uncertainty.

The last poem, eponymously “Physics,” embodies a fresh lyricism, improvising on the empirical phrase describing the sun’s passage, “heavily modal”:

[…] Ever-swelling
waves; their exhausted slapping against
the crenellated harbor
wall. Murmurous layers of
sand sheeting across one another. Modal,

Chace resolves his reflective discovery in a last variation, returning us to a “farther shore” and its enchanting music:

[…] On that island hidden
beyond the promontory, seals’
wailing, like Beethoven’s
Late Quartets. Modal, heavenly.


As with Farther and Maths, Claire DeVoogd’s Via explores the purposiveness of travel in a mythological context. The notion of road or way in the title, “via,” suggests the book’s position as a debut, but of course also alludes to Dante’s opening of the Inferno, where the direct (or straight) road has been lost (“la diritta via era smarrita”).

In DeVoogd’s poetry, there’s a voluptuousness of beginning, of a timeless spring, as often characterized medieval troubadour verse. Also, fundamental to the adventure are the dual figures of the dream (Dante’s Divine Comedy, after all, is framed by a dream), as well as the legendary persona of the 12th-century poet Marie de France. The book’s five sections begin with a longer poem, “Siste Viator” (“Stop, Voyager”), a common injunction on Roman roadside tombstones, asking travelers to consider the person’s life buried there. DeVoogd, too, initiates the journey with an aside alluding to the River Styx, “The night / Water there licks at black stones,” and her admission: “I don’t know how to / lead you to the water’s edge my friends go across / To die in. Sorry.”

Unlike Thackrey and Chace, who begin with physical or material experience, DeVoogd sets off with a dream, however lucid and troubling. The next section, “Errands,” is subtitled “a correspondence with Marie de France,” and opens with the prose text “Marie Tells a Story,” wherein the dream machinery evokes a vivid, haunting landscape: “Early this millennium I grow terrified and weep into the gas tank”; or later, “The sunset is two thousand variations, all feelings becoming indigo, and the Perseids are falling, drenching blue stains.” Marie’s vision resolves with “No one goes in there, not to that river, not to drink. Then it’s not there and it goes away. Day starts.”

The third section’s fragmentary longer poem, “Survival Strategies,” begins with another translation from Marie de France, suggesting a more than passing acquaintance with the “pain of homecoming” in Virgil and Homer: “there was no question of his returning to his land / and he was grief stricken, not knowing / what to do.” In “Emergencies,” the fourth and longest section, most of the 25 poems are titled “Apocalypse,” with six titled “Dream.” All of these mindscapes bear a dizzy, pellucid quality. DeVoogd seems at home in the lyrical boundary between the personal and the private, and much of her language’s energy resides in this risky borderland. Near the end of “Emergencies,” the speaker in no way relents, remaining all in, technically and otherwise:

[…] White hot
California. Creatures out
of the cages entering
households stony
near legible array.

DeVoogd concludes with an “Endnote” describing, among other things, her notion of “apocalyptic,” meaning “to make a book about loving what doesn’t exist—whether that means a twelfth century French poet whose first name and poems are all that is left of her presence in the world, or the future of the present world.” Beginning in a realm of myth, like Thackrey’s Farther and Chace’s Maths, DeVoogd’s debut suggests that the world of myth is closer than ever to the reality we are facing.

LARB Contributor

Paul Vangelisti is the author of more than 30 books of poetry, as well as a noted translator from Italian. In 2020, his collection Motive and Opportunity was published by Shearsman Books in the United Kingdom, while in 2021 Liquid Prisoner appeared from Lithic Press in Colorado. In 2022, his collaboration with artist William Xerra, Fragment Science, was published by Edizioni il verri in Milan. In 2014, he edited Amiri Baraka’s posthumous collected poems, SOS: Poems 1961–2013, for Grove Press. Vangelisti lives in Pasadena.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!