MAY 22, 2015
ON ITS SURFACE, a typical Angie Estes poem is all fun and filigree: oxymorons, etymological rabbit holes, multilingual puns. But underneath the play there’s always a self who thinks and feels deeply about her world, largely through European art, broadly defined: visual art, music, and architecture, fashion, food, and typography. The opening poem of Chez Nous (2005), Estes’s third book, introduces a speaker whose magnetic attraction to “glamour” can fire off thoughts like a railgun — to the Rita Hayworth film noir Estes quotes in her first lines (“I can never get a zipper / to close. Maybe that stands / for something, what do you think?”), or to an equally seductive landscape:
I think glamour is its own
allure, thrashing and
flashing, a lure, a spoon
as in spooning, as in l’amour
in Scotland, where I once watched
the gorse-twisted hills unzip
to let a cold blue lake
In Enchantée — her latest collection and winner of the 2015 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award — Estes has repurposed her verbal exuberance as a defense against loneliness and loss. These new poems question the projects and permanence of art, both by Estes and by others; and, in a number of explicitly autobiographical poems about Estes’s deceased parents, they put Estes’s self on unguarded, unprecedented display. Enchantée records a shift in substance that demands a reassessment of style: Estes’s established techniques have been forced to adapt to new, troubling subjects.
Polymathic but not pedantic, witty but never at thoughtfulness’ expense, knowledgeable in both European high art and American kitsch, and blessed with the anagrammatizing mind of a Scrabble prodigy: Estes is, as her title suggests, someone you’d be enchantée, pleased to meet. And someone who never quite sounds like anyone else, though like Robyn Schiff and Lucie Brock-Broido — two other allured-to-glamour poets — Estes refuses to stick to any single story, or tone, or genre, for long. Whatever we’re calling them — collectors, synthesizers, the attention-deficient aspiring to the condition of poets — Estes, Schiff, and Brock-Broido are poets for whom the question isn’t: what are these poets doing? It’s: how many things can they do at once?
What do a 15th-century French illuminated manuscript, a Jewish mourning ritual, a gingko tree, breakthroughs made by 2nd-century Chinese astronomers, and the deaths of a grandparent and a parent have in common? Nothing — until Estes arranges them, in an unsteady constellation, in Enchantée’s slender elegy “Item:”
a beautiful hours, very well
and richly illuminated. The yahrzeit candle
beats its yellow heart
all night, and the next morning
the gingko loses all of its leaves
at once. In 185 ad,
Chinese astronomers witnessed
what they called a guest star
that appeared in the sky and lingered
for eight months, the first documented
observation of a supernova, death
of a distant star. After his mother
died, my father arrived at her house
to find only a thimble
on the windowsill, erect
as a nipple. And when he
died, I found hanging, dry stone
in his shed, a shrink-wrapped
Estes’s overstuffed poems can recall unranked lists of the most marvelous, though incongruous, items. Her speakers try to wrestle them into some comprehensible order — but often in Enchantée, they can’t. (“Item,” before it became an English noun, was a Latin adverb meaning “also” and could separate entries on an unranked list, like the modern-day bullet point.) The final image of “Item:” is a dead body, uncovered but revealing nothing; where its nipples once were, “where a pair of / pink doves once blinked,” are now two scars like “two / eyebrows, raised,” expressing a posthumous perplexity.
We recognize Estes by the range of her knowledge, or by her rapid, restless mind, but also by her bravura wordplay: her lines play an advanced version of word golf, which permits homophones, anagrams, mishearings, puns, translations, and etymological backtracking. Watch what Estes can do with “lips”: “They rustle / like elves in the leaves, so the French / call them lèvres, the levers, lapels / of the mouth, where we lapse / into ourselves.” Other poems play a theme and variations on a single word: in “Afternoon,” Estes fits in the word “slip” eight times, her speech slipping into and out of innuendo:
So let’s slip into something more
comfortable, like character or your native tongue,
and then later, after dinner, we can slip out
Estes also appreciates landscapes and cityscapes, almost always in her adopted continent of Europe. And she is enamored with quotables and trivia culled from science, lexicography, anthropology, celebrity culture, history, and (increasingly in Enchantée) her own personal history.
The centerpieces of an Estes poem, though, are her breathless appreciations of artworks. A single Estes poem makes references by the dozen, illuminating every artwork in terms of all the others, no matter their distances in space, time, or substance. “Hail to Thee,” from Enchantée, lifts its title from Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” but within a few lines it bounds from “Skylark” to soup to Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk:
Hail to Thee,
I write, my wrist nodding
as it does when chopping leeks
and garlic with a knife, then stirring
the soup, whose project — with farro,
ceci, and nettles — is to present life
as it has been forgotten.
The artistic virtue Estes admires most, she calls the “Baroque”: this includes, but is not limited to, the period art historians define as the Baroque era. Estes’s earlier poem “Rendez-Vous” pays tribute to Bernini’s sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by way of comparison to “pâtisserie,” flowers, and a musical “appoggiatura.” And her wordplay might remind us of the Baroque era’s serious trifles — of, say, Bach’s inscription of his own surname as a musical motif. (B-A-C-H, spelled out in musical notes, appears in his compositions not only as an in-joke for musicologists but as a crucial structural tool.)
But in Estes’s usage the term “Baroque” stretches out to encompass art from before the capital-B Baroque era — illuminated manuscripts, medieval painting, iconography — and art much later — Miles Davis and John Coltrane, mid-century film, contemporary art. This Baroque refers to anything that is extravagantly ornamented for extravagant ornamentation’s sake. In an earlier poem, “Sans Serif,” Estes rejects the titular set of fonts for appearing “clean / and spare, like Cassius it has that lean / and hungry look.” The poem’s central declaration reads as both haughty send-off and personal manifesto: “It’s the opposite of / Baroque, so I want / none of it.” Estes’s Baroque isn’t the least bit weighed down by the baggage of serifs or (to quote again from “Sans Serif”) “a lick / of gold leaf,” by an appoggiatura or the icing on the (often literal) cake. Rather, these apparent add-ons are indispensable, both to the otherwise “lean / and hungry” lives we lead and to the opulent art that decorates and describes them.
Though the Baroque snakes through all of Estes’s work, twisting it into asymmetrical and exquisite shapes, Enchantée is Estes’s first collection to envision the Baroque’s possible failure. “Ars Poetica,” from Enchantée, conjures the Baroque in hallucinatory form, only to witness its complete “collapse”:
I once dreamed a word entirely
Baroque: a serpentine line of letters leaning
with the flourish of each touching the shoulder
of another so that one breath at the word’s
beginning made them all collapse.
Earlier Estes poems charm us with the notion that the Baroque can sustain perpetual motion and impeccable form: every letter will lean on another, each flourish will give way to flourish. Enchantée is not so naïve: its sorrowful songs of experience know well that the intake of “one breath” can spell not only the collapse of the “entirely / Baroque” dream but the end of a life. Estes’s new poems are still repositories of curiosities, but their trivia tends toward the morbid, toward a how-to like “How to Know When the Dead Are Dead”:
To be sure the dead are dead,
Greeks would cut off a finger, Slavs rubbed bodies
with warm water for an hour, while Hebrews wait
for putrefaction because even without hands, the dove
still plays her flute.
Estes is as enchanted as ever by art, but she is repeatedly drawn to representations of the dead: the body of Christ, Leonardo da Vinci’s meditations on corpses, Dante’s imaginative afterlife. Even Estes’s wordplay, her poems’ most reliable source of fun, hints at alienation, dislocations of time and space, endings of all kinds. Puns turn painful: “Pietà” opens: “It was the end / of an era, the end of / to be.” “Era,” in Italian, means not only “age” or “period” but also “she was” or “he was.” In an Estes poem, where multilingualism is the baseline, the phrase “the end of an era” transforms from cliché to elegy: he was, she was, no more. Other word games address the lonesomeness of living: “Cache,” a poem set on the “hectic site” of Paris’s Île de la Cité, speaks three languages in as many terse lines: “yesterday, / here, hier and ici, the icy ache / of ich.” Simply by translating some words and spelling out others — “hier” (almost a homophone of “here”) and “ici” are French for “yesterday” and “here,” while “icy ache” sounds out the letters of “ich,” German’s first-person pronoun — Estes conjures a lonely, aching “I,” a solo voice drowned out by a cacophony of languages.
“Cache” is one among many Enchantée poems to close with tortuous, tragicomic wordplay, and with its restless lines and zippering indentation, one among many to signal Estes’s increasing experimentation with form. Earlier Estes poems, like “True Confessions” and “Sans Serif,” often came as an unbroken streak of two-to-four-beat, left-margin-aligned lines. Estes now uses line-lengths and whitespace to replicate feelings too unruly for that clipped, quippy standard. Now she changes forms between every poem, forms for every poem: for the decomposing relationship of “Brief Encounter” (after David Lean’s 1945 film), Estes writes spaced-out, wrenched-open couplets, with no two neighboring lines perfectly flush:
The story is the only one
I can tell and the only one I can
never tell, she says after she has left
her lover for the last time, in voiceover
to her husband, the only one I can tell
and the only one I can never
Estes’s coupled lines, like the lovers of her poem and Lean’s film, can never quite agree. Estes also writes poems in page-spanning, sparsely punctuated lines; poems portioned into drastically dissimilar sections; poems in ad hoc shaped stanzas; and several poems written in tercets, referencing Italian culture, that resemble but never perfectly replicate terza rima.
Doubtless, Dante and the Divine Comedy have inspired some of Estes’s new forms, but the influence does not stop there. Estes mentions or quotes Dante in (by my count) 12 of the book’s 31 poems. (Her passion for art is tempered by an academic’s remove — in her poems she feels obliged to translate most foreign phrases into English, she includes scholarly references in the back of her book, and she opens or closes her allusions with clear markers: “Mallarmé said,” “According to Leonardo,” “In Purgatory.”) In part, Estes admires Dante for his irreverent and intrepid approach to language, for going where no Italian has gone before: Enchantée’s “Evening” travels back to Estes’s childhood and across the Milky Way, but turns on Dante’s coinage of the verb “dislagarsi,” to “un-lake itself.” More importantly, in Estes’s austere elegies, Dante recurs as a model artist who can imaginatively represent what happens to us after death in ways that are always beautiful, yet rarely true.
A core paradox of Enchantée is that its Dante-referencing poems are simultaneously its most autobiographical: in order to revisit Estes’s childhood, family, and personal life, they send us seven centuries back and a continent away. In a practice that recalls allegorical interpretation of scripture, Estes superimposes past onto present, Dante’s Europe onto her America, canonical literature onto autobiography. In a 2010 interview, Estes explains: “For in a sense I’d been doing a kind of medieval ‘anagogical’ thinking most of life — reading the details of this world in the light of some other world.” As “Evening,” adapting Paradiso IX:108, wishfully describes, a God like Dante’s “makes the world above / inform the world below.”
These superimpositions animate one of Enchantée’s most astonishing poems, “Shadow of the Evening.” The poem describes, and analogizes, three figures: first, a bronze Etruscan statue, “22” tall by 4” wide,” known as L’Ombra della sera (the shadow of the evening); second, an incorporeal “shade” out of Dante; third, Estes’s own brother. The first half of the poem recounts, in Baroque style, the statue’s origins, but the second half hurtles abruptly into a personal episode, returning to
in 1949 when my brother — he must have been
three — crawled over the front seat
of the car towards the back, reached for
the push-down handle of the door and
fell out, rolling down the road as my parents
sped by. My mother turned to grasp him
the way Dante keeps trying
to clasp a shade, wrapping her arms
around her own chest.
Estes is rarely so narrative, so generous with autobiographical details, as she is here. In that same 2010 interview, Estes describes herself as “uneasy with ‘personal’ detail and ‘narrative thread’ […] because of their tendency to claim some ‘authentic’ realm of experience that doesn’t feel to me to be the experience the poem is really enacting or giving rise to.” Unlike many verse-autobiographers, Estes prefers lyric to narrative, artifice to “authentic.” By triangulating her brother with two artificial figures — the shadow-thin statue and the insubstantial “shade,” each as ungraspable as her brother’s memory — Estes makes her experiences somehow more of a piece, somehow more intelligible, even if by a self-conscious act of contrivance.
But for every poem that layers art onto life, making sense of one through the other, Enchantée has a poem that casts art into unforgiving and, in Estes’s work, unheard-of doubt. Some poems take Platonist cues and depict art as a copy of a copy of a copy: “Note” displays “the photograph of my mother’s great / grandfather printed from a negative made / from a photograph of a negative, which we / Xeroxed for keeps.” In starkly anti-Baroque fashion, these verbal repetitions have no embellishment to offer. In contrast, “I Want to Talk About You” worries that art is all embellishment, all outward show: Estes’s long, breathless lines compare the flight of starlings to “a woolen scarf wrapping / and wrapping, nothing at the center but throat” and to “extended cadenzas to pieces that / never get played.” Estes’s meditations on art, on its relevance to a life, never reach neat resolutions. But in “Recall,” her book’s last poem, she concludes that these are all moot questions — we’re going to continue making and appreciating art, no matter what. The drive to create, Estes suggests, is inborn, involuntary, inescapable: her book’s final five lines, quoting from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, leave us with one last anecdote.
Bachelard recalls how
the French baritone said it is impossible
to think the vowel sound ah without
tensing, tightening the vocal chords: we read ah
and the voice is ready to sing.
Any one Estes poem gives the impression of doing everything at once, but a whole book may leave some readers feeling, or fearing, that Estes’s transcription of our world leaves out a lot: race, any social group of three or more people, modern technology (save for a lone iPad in “Almost Autumn”), most current events, the less-than-Baroque arts, and pretty much anything that has ever happened outside of Western Europe, the United States, or one or two parts of Asia. Certain readers may be turned off by Estes for the very reason people have avoided James Merrill or even Wes Anderson: for what looks like a cloistered, Europhilic, aesthetic (as in “aesthete”) sensibility, at the apparent expense of larger issues. But if any poet could convince us that art and life share the same high stakes and same high style, that the Baroque is life at its most bracing and best, it’s Estes. Enchantée makes her case in superlative ways — it’s her most Dantean book, her most experimental, her most mournful, perhaps her most serious (and least purely fun). And for her new readers, it is the best introduction to Estes to date.
In retrospect, Estes’s primary subjects in Enchantée — not only art and language and the Baroque, but what any of the three can and can’t do to make our lives any different — were her hidden subjects all along. With Enchantée, Estes has fashioned that familiar question into memorable, musical forms; with her exuberant poems, she’s given us good answers.