ONE PLEASURE OF DISCOVERING and revisiting second books of poems for this Second Acts series has been the opportunity to juxtapose and curate particularly affinitive pairings of second books published 20 or more years ago with second books published within the past year. This month it is a privilege to bring into conversation two collections whose turf is the perilous, vulnerable “badlands” of the raptorial and the rapturous — precincts whose borders blur and daunt the parameters of what it means to be a human animal in a world of myriad, complicated hungers.
I first encountered the work of Beckian Fritz Goldberg in the pages of Crazyhorse in 1991. Among a handful of Goldberg’s poems in that issue was a piece called “The Possibilities” (and I remember the particular year and volume so clearly because at the time I was the mother of three children aged four and under; my literary magazine subscriptions were lifelines amidst the litter of box juices and forays to the park, pediatrician’s office, and library), a poem that would a couple years later begin her second book, The Badlands of Desire (Goldberg’s first collection, Body Betrayer, had just appeared in 1991). Every time I read the poem, I recall clearly why I was at that first discovery so excited by it.
In some ways “The Possibilities” resembles much of the poetry making its way into the best journals and quarterlies in those years (among them places such as Crazyhorse, The American Poetry Review, The Black Warrior Review, Poetry Northwest, The Gettysburg Review, Passages North, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, all publications in which the work in Badlands first appeared): longer (page to a page and a half), quasi-narrative free verse poems, steadily enjambed and often concerned with family — poems that relied heavily on conditional gestures (“if” and “as if”), deep image, and genitive-link metaphors to move their emotional material.
Something else, however — something fresh and transgressively imaginative — courses through “The Possibilities,” with its litanized fantasies of story that require yet more fantasies of substitution, fantasies of reclamation, terror, even sacrifice. The poem has about it a potent, hunger-whetted subtext of primal myth and fairy tale. Ostensibly a quiet elegy about the death of a spouse, “The Possibilities” is an obsessive poem about obsession — about the obsessive nature of grief, imagination, of figuration — and it took me seductively, subtly, and dangerously by the throat:
After a wife’s death a man may talk
to his horse with a great tenderness
as if, just this morning, he had tried on
her pink slipper. If he has no horse
he may crack his window a little
wider when it lightly rains to confirm
the roofs are trees are made
of paper. If there is no rain
he may make himself a meal at midnight,
sweet artichokes and Danish cheese,
a glass of red wine. If there is
no red, then white, He may suck the knife
clean with his tongue. Later
lying awake he may hear the wild lung
of a motorcycle far off on a far road.
If there is no motorcycle, a dog
trying for any syllable in any known
language. Something falling suddenly in
the closet, according to some law.
As the poem progresses, and its emotional exchanges become more hallucinatory and metaphysical (“If there is no chair, / then a shelf. A shelf of books with the devil’s / violet fedora tossed on top”), Goldberg ventures that these obsessive economies of theft and menace, and the “possibility” the mind allows for cancelling and conjuring losses real and imagined in exchange for other losses — that triangular, figurative affair of sleight-of-imagination — are in fact at the heart of her poetic project:
the possibilities, the immaculate
like miracles which are nothing
in themselves, but in this world a sign
of angels, ghosts, supernatural beings
who watch over us. Who listen. Who sometimes
helplessly let us stumble on
their pyramids, their crude observatories
or let us, generation after
generation, speak to the broken horse
of the human heart.
In this poem, and in the poems throughout In The Badlands of Desire, relentless, restive transformative acts of imagination (something akin to the Grimms märchen) allow the poems’ speakers to keep the past ever present (sometimes at great peril) and, occasionally, even to achieve a kind of qualified rescue or redemption, enacted by the shape-shifting potency of invention.
Rilke has written that the two inexhaustible sources for poetry are childhood and dream, and Goldberg’s poems tap into the feverish waters of both, often at the same time, as in this passage from “If I Were in Beijing”:
If I were in Beijing I would be the student
facing a tank. If I were in Russia
I would be the poet in the gulag.
If I were in Argentina I would be
sewing the names of the disappeared
into my shawl and walking the plazas.
But too often I am in my own childhood,
its silent movies, its fish-thrashings of light.
Too often I am buried in the clover of the silence
of my own house. I do not know how long
it is before the dead stop counting. I hold
my breath. Each heart must find the terror
it can deny is like its own.
Whether literally recounting a dream or not, an oneiric italicizing of the self by its own desire and fear (fear of “promises to myself,” of death, of one’s own passion) is communicated in a mix of the most striking and unexpected eruptions of imagination. Attending this badland metaphoric turf is the suggestion (and terrified hope?) that anything can morph into something else at any moment, as these various images attest:
When I go to hell they weigh my heart.
The walls are painted with the lacquer
gaze of jilted brides. I wonder why I am here.
The devil comes, soft and cloven like a burnt cake.
He opens his manual.
It is called How to Interpret Your Dreams.
(from “The Winged Eye”)
My nails sank into the tender edge
of thunder. Rabid snow. He shoved
his hard comb into my hair, and wasted
me with light. I am the leper whose heart
falls out first. But when I rose,
at last, from the river
in the thousand drops of my skin
I was boiling. I was a woman . . .
I do not want to be one with anything.
In a poem called “The Strange Metamorphosis of Poets,” Howard Nemerov asserts that American poets move, through the course of careers, from “epigram to epic,” from lyric to narrative: “They start out Emily,” he writes, “and end up Walt.” And while I have read that Goldberg considers herself to be at heart a lyric poet, I am grateful for the ways in which her work in Badlands and beyond has remained preoccupied with the slippages of tale, myth, fable, and story. (Readers can find a selection from all of her books, as well as a great many new poems, in Reliquary Fever: New and Selected Poems, published by New Issues in 2010.) A courageous wielding of the twin blades of fear and longing (Wordsworth: “I grew up. Fostered alike by beauty and by fear”) in Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s work traffics with rapture and invites our rapt attention. Here is “Resolutions” from Badlands:
When I die in spring
I think of the wasp’s lonely earring
above the pool in summer,
and when I die it is
summer with the first chill
of a wine glass,
its invisible writing, and I
am about thirty again, watching
the good heart of October. So
it is true: I can’t imagine death
falling in any known time
of the year. Now it is
January and I have promised my mother
to write my resolutions.
I do not resolve to clean cupboards.
I do not resolve to give up
drink. Or the biting of nails.
I am afraid of promises to myself.
I hope I will be happy
in the summer, reading by the sea
feeling the blue stop
at the top of my book.
There is, maybe this year, maybe
the next, one day that is promised
to me. On that day
I will be thinking of another
like the bride beneath the dullard
the matchmaker chose.
What does the speaker desire in this poem? Finally, it must be less to know the moment of her own death and more to accept the fact of it, and the strangely marvelous admission that even in that imagined moment of ultimate surrender, her fierce, agile, and desiring mind will already be imagining an ulterior hunger. Perhaps it is our human nature to be always seeking a place for which we are nostalgic or desirous but have never been or have not yet imagined. As Goldberg writes in “Eros in His Striped Shirt,” just to be alive “is homesick.”
Andrew Feld’s Raptor comes nearly a decade after the publication of his 2003 National Poetry Series award-winning first book, Citizen, appeared in 2004. Feld is an exacting poet whose poems are capable of holding at once the most intense, objective sensory detail and the most elusive and ethically ambivalent mental exercise, and Raptor has been worth the wait. The pitch of formal verge and the float of personal and political trespass in Feld’s inaugural text finds renewed ardor in his second, a passionately pent meditation on wild(er)ness and restraint.
The matrix of Feld’s second book is a series of poems about raptors — birds of prey — and, in particular, about falconry, an ancient art in which humans hunt quarry with the aid of carefully trained birds. Detail and language from medieval and other falconry texts and from what would appear to be first-hand experience working at a raptor rehabilitation center mix with concerns about relationships, history, violence, and “the auto-da-fé we’re making of our / Planet,” as in this passage from “Visitant”:
The falcon is the world. If the saint views his prayer
Books’ open pages through half-shut, heavy-lidded eyes,
As one trembling for touch shuts down one sense to make
Another more acute, the bird on his hand has the disked
Pupils of a predator waiting for an error, the pause or
Extra wing-beat as a quail hesitates between escape routes,
Any of the little lapses of attention the falcon preys
On. Once, driving too fast to Vermont to visit a girl-
Friend, my car spun out on a corner of the interstate’s
Iced-over mountain roads, pinballing between guardrails
At 60 mph instinct and thought whirled uselessly around
The abyss between my abdomen and lungs until I pillowed
Into a snowbank. So the young aristocrat surrenders to
Historical drift and under the eagle standard of empires
Lets slip the falcon’s jess, choosing instead the quail
Life and fate.
In his characteristically measured, even stately lines, which often barely reign in the blunt animus of his content (in “The Game,” Feld writes: “when the candidate explained / dressing up on weekends as an SS officer as / ‘a father/son bonding thing,’ I wanted to kill him”), Feld stirs the “pages” of the hunting ground, the playing field, the delicate mess of artifice, precedent, volition, and instinct by with we negotiate our lives. In the passage above, for instance, especially provocative is the alignment of prey and pray, of the reasons we might shut down certain senses (mysticism and mystery derive from myein, to initiate, and also to obscure), in the hunt — in violence, in erotic play, in spiritual devotion — in order to hone and heighten other awarenesses.
In a trinity of poems riffing on the notion and condition of there-ness (“There,” “There: An Epistle,” and “Epilogue to ‘There’”), the speaker embarks on his own falcon flight, fugue-interstate road trip, a sojourn complicated by chasers of guilt, American excoriations, and self-doubt (“Inside my green Civic the air- / Conditioner blows a cold wind / From November 2004, post-election. / I get good mileage out of my despair”). His odyssey takes him through a nadir of pit stops, indicting along the way an America that seems to have relinquished its responsibilities to its children and its natural inhabitants:
The mise-en-scène of our indigenous holocaust
To the Trail of Tears Rest Area parking lot,
Through the Badlands’ Brazil-waxed hills
Where the country’s all passed out on pills
And peppermint schnapps, ready for some black-out sex
We’d totally deny if it wasn’t on the internet
With captions and disclaimers in four languages,
Les femmes de motards deviennent sauvages!
It’s hard not to see the eagle that the speaker comes upon devouring an antelope on the side of the road as a parody of America’s national bird, a national “story” that the end-rhymes of the last four lines (here, stare, mirror, disappear) makes all the more appalling:
I felt the death
Blow on my neck, transfixed into the here
And now by what possessively returned my stare,
As the brown bird shrank in my rearview mirror
(I had to move), watching me watch it disappear.
Feld neither romanticizes nor demonizes any of his players, human or animal. But in the “trap of narrative the falcon labors in” he means us to see ourselves as well. The danger, these poems suggest, arises when we neglect to know what we are and to respect what we aren’t, a condition in which “fellow-feeling” can become “aggression, / [rendering] all questions of wild or tame / specious.” Raptors, we learn in the poems, cannot sing — they can only shriek and cry. Surely these are primal sounds that stalk all poetry. What to offer such radical otherness, barely tamable and only so with loss? Feld writes in “Guide”:
To soothe the hawk I sang the lullaby
we use at feeding times to call our birds
to glove. The song is archaic but it works
as a point of contact between us and allows
an allotment of freedom like the length
of jess between swivel and anklet,
Is song, poetry, recompense for the raptor , or for us? Or for the raptor in us, from which are always, if we are lucky, at a distance? A distance, Feld writes in his concluding poem, also called “Raptor”:
[w]hich is absolute, and which if we tried to cross
He would escape into, taking with him the hunger
He is instrument and of air, the song, the measure.