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 a profession, a calling? The answers are yes, yes, and yes. But the answers suggest new questions, quandaries that Emanuel pursues throughout the collection: is an artist obliged to respond during a time of crisis? Could a response threaten her more fundamental obligation to her art? How exactly does the personal relate to the political? What if the two are sometimes so entwined that they can’t be told apart? What if they seem at other times to remain radically separate?
Emanuel follows her questions, and her dissatisfaction with the limits of the self, into strange and original territory in the middle section of the book, a series titled “The Mongrelogues” which finds the poet’s voice replaced by a dog’s. The poet herself seems at first to disappear, but then returns as the dog’s companion, whom he calls “sum seniorita.” The two traipse together through Emanuel’s film-noirish landscape, their adventures teetering between slapstick and terror.
This series offers Emanuel the perfect chance to experiment, since the abasement of becoming a dog allows her to get down and dirty with the actual feel of her syllables and inhabit seemingly primitive or reduced states through the mangling of idioms. These include ancient or biblical registers as well as the semi-literate slang of graffiti or text messaging. Such tones tend to blur into “mature” states of experience or history – adulthood, the 21st century – perhaps to convey the idea that we always carry our primitiveness inside our maturity, and go back to it more than we’d like to admit. Take the section subtitled “Dogg of War”:
One day she and i took the drugs
that tolt the terrors to
KNOCK IT OFF.
stone them into niceness…
We wuz bombed.
As usual there was bodies.
An in the mornin they lookt fer ours.
But we wuz not present.
We wuz gone.
Whew, sd I,
that wuz a close one.
These lines are remarkable for their speed and vivacity. Tones slip and slide, sometimes from one syllable to the next. Cartoonish exclamation, for example, morphs into archaic inversion: “Whew, sd I.” Taken as a whole, the twelve lines suggest that our language is determined in ways we can’t control: we talk about the release offered by drugs with the same language we use to describe the terrors from which we want release: “We wuz bombed.”
The tremendous power of Emanuel’s experiment has to do with her immersion in such dialectical twists as presented by the slipperiness of her artistic medium itself: speech. The whole structure of the book enacts a drama of escape and entrapment as the lyric “I” disappears and then resurfaces. Near the end of the book, in an untitled prose poem, the poet reflects:
I tried to flatter myself into extinction; tried to bury alive in a landslide of disparagement ego and subjectivity and the first person singular pronoun.
But she admits that these attempts have never really worked. The “I” keeps popping up again. Emanuel ends the poem with two questions:
Why is I hauled forth over this choppy terrain like a tug on the rough boulevards of a black river? And by whom?
The persistence of the self appears less as a triumph or a defeat and more as a strange survival. The “whom,” that guiding being larger than the self, may not offer otherworldly transport in any traditional sense. Nor does it seem at all reassuring. But its ghostly appearance here implies how Emanuel’s radical skepticism, while destabilizing nearly everything – right down to our habitual assumptions about the coherency of our selves and our language – fuses in the end with the old power of lyric, the visionary ability to x-ray through “Appearance” and expose genuine and mysterious forms of “Being.” In the darkness, this book suggests, the truest images of the self appear.
These images may appear distorted as in a funhouse mirror, and they may elude any desire for authenticity. Certainly, the first person in these poems, as it dons its various weird guises, only to escape our grasp, would seem a far cry from any traditional lyric “I.” But the figure of the poet that does survive in Emanuel’s work suggests how belief and doubt, personal experience and collective life, autobiographical narrative and linguistic play, are not necessarily opposite. These can also provide complementary aesthetic approaches. I’m convinced that, by breaking past those obdurate oppositions, Emanuel offers not only a powerfully and passionately written collection but also a vital contribution to the development of contemporary poetry.
C. Dale Young would seem, from a first encounter with his poems, a more traditional poet than the author of Noose and Hook. Young writes most often from personal experience, in a manner that would be familiar to readers of naturalistic fiction or prose memoir. Young’s skill with formal measures is exquisite. He’s learned from such formal masters as Derek Walcott and the late Donald Justice, who was his teacher. But Young’s third book shows a style that has become truly his own. The poems are distinguished throughout by crisp imagery, well-wrought lines and sentences, and a fine balance of tones. Such almost neoclassical poise depends for its strength, however, on a counter force, a persistent restlessness. At times this makes for endearing comedy, as in the opening of “En Fuego”:
The afternoon is hot. Simple, but true.
The afternoon is what, smoldering? Unlikely.
Muggy, hot, but not sweltering, not smoldering.
If the poet’s dissatisfaction with his own assertions comes across here as humor, it also informs the searching, constantly questioning movement elsewhere in Torn, as Young delves into difficult subject matter. The first half of the book, for example, presents several poems about the development of sexual identity in childhood. Young gathers lyric and narrative power from dwelling in discomfort, from remaining in uncertain territory. Take “Inheritance,” in which the poet remembers a great uncle’s tirade, triggered when his grand nephew explains that the ancestor in a portrait had been dead for “many moons,” which the uncle takes to be “speaking like a pansy.” The great-uncle, in his rage, shouts that this ancestor, had he been alive, would have killed both the boy and his mother. Here’s how the poem ends:
What had I said? What could I possibly have said?
That William Richard Extant August would have killed me,
that he should have killed my mother, is all I remember
my great-uncle shouting. I was not a real man, a man’s
man, a man of guts, a pure man, an honorable man.
In the portrait of him near the sunroom, his head tilted
Between direct stare and a sly, almost feminine, profile,
There was a mole on the upper inner edge of his left earlobe.
William Richard Extant August, I had never met you.
I had never killed anything with my bare hands.
And years later, having learned to shave, I find it.
There, on my ear, the same mole, in the same spot.
Long Dead? No not dead at all. Asleep. Resting.
Waiting for the right time to make himself known.
Young has a fiction writer’s skill for conveying narrative information subtly and cannily. These lines are characteristic of the kind of layered complexity he gets into his poems. But what I find most moving is the balance between the intense emotion and the fine, clear observation – both of which Young renders. What can you do if you gather that your life, indeed your own body, bears the imprint of a man who, you’re told, would have killed you? Young’s answer lies in the poem, which is able to hold together contradictions that would otherwise remain untenable. Just as the sentence about killing with one’s bare hands exists next to the lines of exquisite detail about the mole, so the poem contains both the self and the other who might have the power to annihilate the self. And Young refuses to smother this conflict with any pat resolution. His ending suggests that the other always lies in wait for us, perhaps even inside of us. Whether the eventual arrival will be a joyous reunion or a threat, we don’t always know.
Plenty of poets and critics talk about “the other” as a theoretical construct. But what makes Torn such a powerful book is the way that, without losing his analytical doggedness, Young pursues such metaphysical questions into the flesh and blood reality around him. These poems ask us if we can hold our desires in balance with what we think is moral. They compel us to consider how we account for others and to understand that we ourselves might be the others. In Young’s poems, the self is plural, and the challenge is often how to balance the different people that any one person may be.
Young’s exploration of these questions seems most impressive in the final section of the book, which contains many of the poems about his work as a physician. Consider the title poem, “Torn,” which the poet places at the very end of the collection. This poem picks up where “Inheritance” ends. It also seems to me an undeniably major poem, one that readers will be turning to for many years to come. The poet recounts the night when, as a medical resident in the ER, he was asked by a doctor to “Stitch up the faggot in Bed 6.” Here is the last third of the poem:
And even though I was told to be “quick and dirty,”
told to spend less than twenty minutes, I sat there
for over an hour closing the wound so that each edge
met its opposing match. I wanted him
to be beautiful again. Stitch up the faggot in Bed 6.
Each suture thrown reminded me I would never be safe
in that town. There would always be the bat
and the knife, always some fool willing to tear me open
to see the dirty faggot inside. And when they
came in drunk or high with their own wounds,
when they bragged about their scuffles with the knife
and that other world of men, I sat there and sutured.
I sat there like an old woman and sewed them up.
Stitch after stitch, the slender exactness of my fingers
attempted perfection. I sat there and sewed them up.
This is a stunning ending. But why? I wondered when I first read the poem. Aside from the dramatic situation itself, which is certainly powerful, what makes this so affecting? I think the answer has to do with a series of savvy formal maneuvers, which nuance and strengthen the personal testimony. For example, think what the poem would feel like if Young had ended with the sentences about never being safe in that town again. This would make a good enough, natural ending. We would surely sympathize with the speaker. But Young knows that drama often works by taking one more additional turn, after the central realization, so he moves into the powerful lines about the gay-bashers themselves needing to be stitched up, about his commitment to doing this work too, going above and beyond what even his unlikeable supervisor would require. That turn complicates the poem and makes it more powerful.
The commitment seems to reflect a strong moral belief. But Young doesn’t ask for some badge of approval here: the turn is equally strong for the reason that the speaker’s commitment to doing his job perpetuates the silence about homophobia. The secret emotions and the official role remain separate in life, though not in the poem.
Subtlety and strength come, too, from Young’s use of repetition. Not only does the doctor’s crude command ring in the poet-physician’s head, but the phrase “sewed them up” also recurs at the end. Repetition carries the sound of dedication: we repeat what we feel strongly about. Yet the need to repeat something often implies uneasiness as well: we repeat what we need to convince ourselves of. This vexed uncertainty relates to the actual nature of the work, the need to heal the messy and irrational.
And which work are we talking about anyway, medicine or poetry? The task of “closing the wound so that each edge/met its opposing match” sounds a little like the very endeavor of setting experience into some kind of curative relation in the lines of poems. But there’s a crucial difference between the two vocations, one that Young understands. Like medicine, poetry may demand that we treat wounds, that we understand mortality, that we apply all possible skill to the often messy terrain of human life. But poetry can also demand that we not repair, that we leave torn what is torn. This is Young’s great gift. He balances his desire to treat his subjects exquisitely and assiduously with his healthy skepticism about easy resolutions.
During the past several years, Tom Sleigh has traveled in the Middle East as a journalist. That experience informs his seventh collection of poetry, Army Cats. The book begins with a sequence of poems rooted in the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War and its aftermath, and then branches back into life in America. There’s nothing merely topical about these poems. Nor is the book some high-minded “poetry of witness.” Sleigh gravitates toward everything that ordinary journalism and ordinary political writing tend not to portray. If you imagine CNN directed by Virginia Woolf, you’ll have some sense of what it feels like to read these poems. I mean that Sleigh works to set the actual happenings of current events against the events of interior consciousness, both the poet’s own and others’. Frighteningly literal occurrences – for example, the deaths of friends in bombings and shootings – lead into dreamlike scenes that then wend into waking “real life” again.
Often, Sleigh builds the very structures of poems out of these shifts in perspective. The first in the collection, “Army Cats,” begins by describing stray cats that live by the Command Post of an army base in Lebanon:
Over by the cemetery next to the CP
you could see them in wild catmint going crazy:
I watched them roll and wriggle, paw it, lick it,
chew it, leap about, pink tongues stuck out, drooling.
The description appears straightforward enough, realistic. But when a pregnant cat comes racing through the weeds, Sleigh’s focus pivots, leading toward ancient history and myth:
Picture her with gold hoop earrings
and punked-out nose ring like the cat goddess Bast,
bronze kittens at her feet, the crowd drinking wildly,
women lifting up their skirts as she floats down
the Nile, a sistrum jangling in her paw.
The poem then circles back to the present day cats lolling in the grass only to jump cut once again into news of a grenade attack on the airport road in Beirut. And this draws the poet back into memory and imagination, as he recounts a bizarre legend from Persian history:
And then I remember the ancient archers
frozen between reverence and necessity –
Who stare down the enemy, barbarians,
as it’s told, who nailed sacred cats to their shields,
knowing their foes outraged in their piety
would throw down their bows and wail like kittens.
As the poem laminates layer upon layer of narrative, one question might be: What do the cats represent? They appear simultaneously as everyday amusing critters, as mythical beasts, and then as abject victims, used to take advantage of those “barbarians” to whom they are in fact sacred deities. Perhaps in the world of this collection the cats are, most accurately, messengers, Hermes-like envoys between various worlds. In “Army Cats” and throughout the book, Sleigh works – himself, in this sense, a messenger – to explore and reconfigure the very boundaries we assume we know, the very orders of being that we tacitly accept. The poet remains, like Emanuel and Young, occupied always with questions of belief. He tends to suggest that the world around us is richer and stranger than we often assume. But his skepticism remains as important as his knack for enchantment. He’s just as likely to move from myth to the mundane as he is to take the reverse turn.
Most important, this blend of belief and doubt is always unstable. Sleigh is always homing in on what we might call zones of contradiction, obsessed with those borders where language edges nonsense, war meets erotic life, the animal encounters the human, and the living dream the dead who haunt them. His dedication to questioning received conventions of knowledge allows Sleigh to find poetry in what we often take for granted, and to offer wondrous (and sometimes harrowing) responses to questions so fundamental they almost sound childish: What is being like? What is the world like? What is a life anyway? How do we measure it, account for it, render it?
I suspect that few poems show this deeply searching quality better than “Shrine,” a short lyric which takes as its seemingly simple task the description of the poet’s desk. Here’s the whole poem:
Shadow of a wing across the curtain.
The winter trees so bare the wood rings with light.
And sun keeps falling through plastic bags torn
To streamers in the branches and quiet
Multiplies long hours into the afternoon
And the paperweight afloat with the brain in clear glass
Gives back the slash and criss-cross of my workaday shrine:
A plastic baggie full of my father’s ashes;
Three teeth pulled, blood dried on the roots; a hospital bracelet;
A vial of sand from the Sahara; a blown glass dolphin
Arcing across the sea from here back to Murano; and a geode split
In two, amethyst and space rock, bookends of the moon.
How long it takes a life to find its proper altitude:
And here it is in front of you, emblem and inconsequence,
Concentrated into the paperweight’s glass void,
There beside me, beyond me, afloat in pure transparence.
The first thing that strikes me about these lines is their persistent clarity, the high resolution with which they render the poet’s attentive gaze. But the marvels here are tonal as well as visual. Leave it to Sleigh to begin a quatrain with the mundane (and yet odd) detail of pulled teeth and to end that same quatrain with the high lyrical note, “bookends of the moon.” The poem, like the desk itself, collects all levels of experience, all the strata of past and present, in one lucid moment. Few other living writers have managed to render, with as much formal skill and emotional force, with as much depth and dimension, what it means to be alive now.
All three of these poets wrestle with belief and doubt about the self and the other, and about the borders between public and private life. But their explorations offer more than just smart responses to ethical and psychological quandaries. They also suggest the tremendous capacity of contemporary poetry itself to portray and embody the world. Reading these three books, I kept thinking: what a wonderfully capacious and labile medium poetry provides! It can have the imagistic speediness of film, the interior depth of the novel, and the dynamic rhythms and surprises of art music, all in one. It may seem strange for me to erupt with such optimism after discussing three books that, admittedly, delve deep into our collective darkness and don’t offer any easy cures. But even as they employ their skeptical intelligence to cut past the conventional consolations, these poets give their readers something to believe in: I mean the power of the imagination to respond to experience, to show us in an artwork how the world is worthy of our passion and compassion. This, in the end, is cause for gratitude.