Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry: Pandemic Edition, Part II

October 12, 2021   •   By Lisa Russ Spaar

Hosts and Guests

Nate Klug

What Though the Field Be Lost

Christopher Kempf

Tributary

Carey Salerno

EVEN AS PUBLIC VENUES around the country reopen and the vaccinated among us feel safer moving through the world, we are far from a “post-pandemic” world. Not only do the virus and its variants still proliferate, but the fallout of what has happened will be with us for a very long time. One such fallout effect for writers with books published in the past two years is that COVID-19 obstructed promotion of their work. For this reason, as I did earlier in the pandemic, I’m devoting this installment of my column to brief reviews of a trio of second books of poems that emerged under the pall of the pandemic. Most if not all of the poems in these collections were probably written in what a friend calls “the former times.” Yet perhaps because the former times in which many poems in all three of these books were likely composed was characterized by intensified racial violence, environmental imperilment, and political polarization, all three collections speak presciently and uniquely to what the pandemic years have exposed with a sometimes brutal clarity.

Nate Klug’s Hosts and Guests examines the sometimes uneasy, shifting economies between what serves as host and what as hosted in an array of contexts, from the Anthropocene to mother and fetus. In What Though the Field Be Lost, Christopher Kempf takes a deep dive into the paradoxes of the American experiment, exploring its entrenched legacies primarily through the lens of the Civil War battle at Gettysburg and its aftermath. And Carey Salerno’s Tributary leans into the tidal consequences of personal and public evangelical extremity, using the central trope of a river to test and indict the waters of zealotry in religion, race, and family.

A meditation by Thomas Traherne that serves as portal into Nate Klug’s Hosts and Guests (“We love we know not what: and therefore everything allures us”) evokes another presiding spirit in the book: Saint Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in his Confessions, “If you keep silent, keep silent by love: if you speak, speak by love; if you correct, correct by love; if you pardon, pardon by love; let love be rooted in you, and from the root nothing but good can grow. Love and do what you will.”

Klug’s metaphysical lyrics shimmer with the allure of the corporeal world: a Lion’s Mane Jellyfish is “tipped on its side, tissue / streaming from the Gorgon mouth”; an awaited child in utero is a “first-time snorkeler / head burrowed, missing much / riveted to the fact of water”; a Great Blue Heron is “[d]olled up gunmetal / still as a mime.” At the same time, the poems offer glints of the doubt and terror upon which tested love and faith depend. “Lion’s Mane Jellyfish,” for example, ends with an image that evokes a skeptical Thomas dipping fingers into the wounds of Christ:

All September, I hadn’t spotted any

until one morning I found
too many, flaking gray like sick lilies,

tide-sloshed against the embankment stones.
Or was it, looking back,

that they’d come for me already
in lack of feeling, in the cloud fleets

after sunset, drooping and translucent,
I could skewer my finger through, but never touch?

In Klug’s imagination, there is no phenomenon — potholes in a city street, a clutch of Pokémon Go People, an inchworm, energy-efficient streetlamps, a dishcloth saturated with a colicky baby’s spit-up milk — unworthy of close attention or incapable of divulging a glimpse into the paradoxes of ardor and belief. The poems are also haunted by representations of time. Several consider clocks: “[A]nd in that way an hour, / felt or not, was proved” (“Water Clocks”); an adult 17-year cicada, “Mars-red toggle-eyes / and vellum wings,” is “just the size of a child’s watch face” (“Brood III”). But it is perhaps in his delicate, intricate syntactical suspensions and arrangements, as much as in his arresting image systems, that Klug conveys the beautiful struggle of risking love and belief in bodies seemingly made to be lost to us, as in “The Convert (I)”:

Stars burn away
of their own vivid weight
or turn to pins
that must’ve, all along, been planes

as faces, cooled
by the years, or taught fear late,
might crease near the eyes
tendering ambition’s mistakes

but my sculling mind
determined to go back
to believe in nothing
finds it can’t — at sea, in faith

To riff on the folk adage about the windshield and the bug: sometimes you’re the host; sometimes you’re the guest. Except in the case of host and guest, one condition cannot exist without the other. It is with an awareness of this reciprocity that Klug’s poems make their forays into a world, reminding us that the word “belief” is cognate with the word “love.”

¤

Christopher Kempf’s What Though the Field Be Lost is a collection both mythic and chthonic, using the palimpsestic battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and environs as a lens for examining America’s fables of war and nationhood, as well as our penchant for valorizing the earth: the buried, the blood-soaked, the heartland’s “amber fields of grain,” the playing fields of football and baseball, and what is entombed only to be resurrected and reenacted. In “South Will Rise,” he writes:

 […] Look — isn’t all myth this
faithful? A savior, Christ for instance, slipped
under & three days later the cave mouth
shining. Dionysus ripped to fretwork
then whole. I am who … Haven’t we
always, sad little death-species, understood
ourselves part somehow of the gods’ going
below — always like it is nothing — only
to return?

Kempf’s book is also, in its lyric way, epic in scope. The title from Satan’s famous speech in Milton’s Paradise Lost signals the ambition of the project — ambitious in the spirit of texts like the Iliad, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Blake’s mythic systems, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But by foregrounding the allure of Satan — “charismatic. The gallant,” as he writes with both sympathy and irony in the title poem — Kempf also suggests that in his book’s investigations, no one cause or side in the Civil War and in the America that it spawned will be unambiguously absolved.

Kempf looks deeply into the manifold complexities of the war’s legacy in America and its deeply divided citizenry, paying close attention to what creates a sense of place, particularly in what is often considered White America — the part of Pennsylvania where most of the poems take place. With an Elizabeth Bishop–like gift for resonant, deftly juxtaposed details, Kempf stays true to the palimpsest: the buckets of amputated shin-bones, the acoustics of battle, the slipperiness of memory, the war reenactors sipping Miller Lite, the football homecoming queens and attendants downing Mountain Dew and popping Milk Duds, the players hurtling their bodies at one another in another kind of battle.

In this respect, the book also owes a debt to James Wright and Richard Hugo, yet what Kempf does with his rich material feels original and important. In poetry’s current identity-facing moment, Kempf steps with smarts, humor, a depth and breadth of historical knowledge, and a nimble imagination into the thick of the debate about the meaning of America, avoiding rancor, rage, or oversimplification. Drawing on historical documents, contemporary letters, and a host of literary allusions, Kempf creates his own palimpsest, his own field of attention and reckoning. Here is one section of the title poem:

Duncan, for his part, cites Shakespeare instead — Iago. “The poet’s role,”
            he writes — 1971, to Levertov — “is not to oppose evil, but to
            imagine it.”
Imagine that, in 1971.

What Though the Field Be Lost moves into that imagining — toward the Iago-like “motiveless malignancy” of atrocity — but does so with compassion. “Kindred, no, the myths / we’ve sown the earth with?” he writes in “Veterans Day 5K”:

[…] There was a country,
once, sent its children great distances. Death
lived there. & when they returned — for they did
often — grand races were held, whole parades
marching through farmland, the line of revelers
bright in raiment, bells clapping. Afterward,
the people drank. Their ruler spoke. Go now,
you who have heard, & spread the good news.

¤

Carey Salerno’s Tributary concerns the prescriptive strictures and silencing imposed by the patriarchal extremism of family in a religious community — a community where girls are dragged by the hair down to a pond and baptismally doused by a “slick-face preacher”; in which a girl must be “whitewashed” like orchard fruit trees to “keep her, to keep her bearing fruit, / one of the orchard”; in which there are codewords that must not be resisted, secrets that cannot be voiced. Salerno pitches her speaker’s grapplings with the trauma of this familial and communal oppression against the inhuman, natural forces of a shapeshifting entity the speaker calls “River.” At times literal, at others figurative, and by turns tidal, dangerous, narrow, deep, seeded with fish, or utterly dry, River, like an impervious God, might take things in but cannot respond, at least not in words (“Will you ever speak?” asks the speaker in “Impatient with the River”; “Take in and in all of the secret: what is spoken at you / & what you can never speak back,” she says in “River Reduced to Monolith”). Deploying erasure, repetition, incantation, and an undulant use of line and typescript on the book’s oversized pages, Salerno embodies in the text the emotional and spiritual torque by which her narrator transforms frustration into forgiveness, and in doing so frees and saves herself.

Like the tributary, Salerno feeds her narrative gradually into the book, and over time the reader comes to understand that there has been physical violence inflicted by the speaker’s father against her brother, a brother whose “tone of disbelief” leads to his banishment from the community; that there is a sister who is suffering from depression; that there are “clan secrets” in which dissent is suppressed, names are erased; and that there are “lone wolf” outliers and insiders in the community whose “whiteness” does not want to be challenged.

The word “tribute” derives from the Latin tributum and refers to a tax paid to a higher power in acknowledgment of submission or in return for protection. That the word relates to “tribe” — to a clan or aggregate of people of any kind — and to “tribunal” (a justice seat) is deeply relevant to the speaker’s reckoning with the forces around and within her. Here is “Says the River to Her Patriarchy,” in which the speaker and River conflate:

to explain how
a tributary
becomes a river
there isn’t a way
but for the tributary
to deny it —
I deny
the very river
I deny the paying
of tribute
grow up, say
the men
in my life
men who
gave me life
when I am
already the river
I say
I am the river
I say
I am grown I say
listen
to my rushing
I say
you will stay
until I’ve finished
my rushing

The volition and agency in this poem are reinforced by its spine of repeated, uppercase, first-person pronouns, the powerful roar of its accrued “r” sounds, and the speaker’s unbudgeable insistence on being heard. Organized as a religious “Order of Service” (Processional, Invocation, Fellowship Invitation, Intercessions, Scripture, Message, Silent Confession, Affirmation of Faith, Benediction), Tributary turns these borrowed rituals into personally meaningful testimony. As the book moves in “No River, But the Fragment of What Once Contained It” toward its closing “Benediction,” the speaker addresses her sister and brother, recalling the amnion of the body that once housed them all (“our first Babel / where we swam in the body / of our bodies’ vocal lurching”):

[…] I see how we cannot go back.
How I can never gather all
the shards up by hand, nor assume
reconstruction of the glass,
nor drink the splintered water.
Our bodies are a body of animals,
the land is stuck and gorged below us.
Let us meet here and sing in mourning,
let us drift and kiss the surface of the estuary.
My brother. My sister. I am all done
running if I were ever running. I am no river,
but the fragment of what once contained it,
what once fit us together, what now reminds
upon every glance of the thing irreparably broken.

Heather McHugh has called poetry a “broken language.” It is in brokenness that the speaker creates a new belonging. Each shard is a part of what was whole, a theme that runs through all three of these recent second collections. “Let’s just be together on the / water,” Salerno writes in the book’s last poem, “while it laps at the basin, carrying our weight and will.”

¤

Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.