THINGS WERE ALREADY hectic in my world when my university, like most, swiftly moved to online-everything in mid-March. As I struggled to acquire enough of a Zoom skill set to invite and join the many meetings that would help to keep my program afloat during a pandemic, a steady stream of just-published and advance review copies of second books of poetry continued to arrive at my house by snail mail. (I wonder how many are accumulating across town in my office building, which is currently shuttered.) Hitched for hours to my home laptop, sick of my own face, I would sometimes glance wistfully, guiltily, longingly at the growing pile of volumes on the table, their colorful spines printed with titles that seemed prescient: Dispatch, Mirrorforms, The Shallows, The Spinning Place, In Accelerated Silence, Nervous System, Requiem with an Amulet in Its Beak …
I found myself feeling regret on behalf of friends, colleagues, and former students whose late winter 2019 and spring 2020 books weren’t getting as much notice as they might be receiving in “normal times,” when crowded bookstore readings, cross-country tours, and campus visits were possible. Therefore, with spring 2020 classes and virtual graduation in the rearview, I’d like to depart from my usual practice of pairing a recent second book of poems with a second volume of poetry appearing at least 20 years ago, and instead offer micro-reviews of some of these recently published titles.
Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World
I’ve heard it said more than once in the past two months that figuring out how to continue living, teaching, and learning under pandemic conditions is like trying to fly an airplane while building it. A sense of necessity — a pressure to record, transcribe, and translate a world in a state of continual linguistic, temporal, and spatial flux and slippage — stalks Cowles’s second book. Not unlike Leonard in Christopher Nolan’s film Memento — who suffers from a rare form of memory loss in the wake of his wife’s murder and must, in order to track down her killer, take and annotate Polaroids (and his own body) in order to build and retain a coherent narrative — Cowles’s speakers rely on photographs, ledgers, recipes, maps, plots, directions, postcards, lists, proofs, field guides, and marginalia to, as she puts it in “Interview,” “take it all in.” Cowles even uses orthographic symbols (a flicker-stitch of hyphens) to offer a transcript of the speech of birds. Words themselves are hard to pin down, as they shape-shift in Ovidian ways; in the economies of these poems, “recipe” morphs into “recipient” and then into “reciprocity.” Here is “Hymn”:
A song. Praise be. And the whole congregation joined in. A song I
sing to know where I am. Copied word for word from the old hymnal.
#30 All Is Well. #92 For the Beauty of the Earth. A transcription.
For the organ. For the choir. These lines correspond to the keys
correspond to the bird sound. A printed version of the bird sound.
An arrangement with an entirely other instrument. For use with the
choir. For use with the congregation. A printed version of an audio
version of a person singing. A record. A set of instructions. Notes
rendered simultaneously, and in this order, and in this way.
The endgame of these poems, however, is not to arrive at one bedrock answer or to solve for “x.” The engines of this book are love and beauty, and the wish “to commit it [all] to memory.” “I want,” Cowles repeats in “The Day Before the Day Before We Have to Leave,” “to commit it to memory.” In “Origin Story,” which opens the collection, Cowles writes,
I stepped out of the blue paper
of map water
world was all around me little blue skirt,
and I wanted it down
sun rose and I wrote
and then I wrote that I wrote it,
never in my life
wrapped in paper
have I ever so much
wanted it down
“Picture this,” she writes in “Three Hours in a Rocking Chair Outside the Blue-Roofed Bunkhouse in the Wind”: “The invisible wind. Its evidences. The wind can blow so hard that whole dogs blow over. I am always looking. I have tried to write it down. The ordinary world. When I did, and when I didn’t, it was always still there.” While working in the tradition of other metaphysical practitioners of what Charles Wright calls “looking around,” Kathryn Cowles is an especially adroit transcriber of our particularly fragile and unstable moment of being human; she is in a continual process of half-describing and half-creating a world she can love.
Lately, I’ve found myself repeating a line from Charles Wright’s Chickamauga: “The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath.” The line also comes to mind whenever I reread one of my favorite books of poems, Peter Kline’s debut collection, Deviants. The figures who haunt that book are isolated, distanced not by law or pandemic but by their own transgressive, secretive, antisocial, sly, and sometimes dangerous inclinations and desires. I love the courage of Deviants, its attempt to seduce readers into intimacy with sensibilities different from their own.
The poems in Mirrorforms are written in a lean, compressed, intensely musical form Kline invented: two stanzas of four lines each, with an ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme, in which the first and last lines of the poem are the same. Like twin-stacked mirrors or blocky hourglasses, these poems enable Kline to maintain an intense intimacy with the reader while cocooning in metaphysically complex subjectivity. The questions that may have generated some of the poems in Deviants — what does it mean to be human? to be lonely? to desire? to grieve? to use language? — are now also addressed in psalms, votives, studies, and elegies, in which the speakers’ spiritual yearnings are as powerful as their secular ones. The mirrorform also allows Kline to borrow, as his repeated lines, phrases and lines from other poets, fostering a confidential conversation and homage.
An Adamic figure speaks in the first section of the book, Psalms, addressing God (“Calligraphist of the spine / of the serpent,” the “Engineer” by whose “design / we break down at three score and nine”), first from the prelapsarian prison of Paradise,
Since I’m not mine to keep,
who is my true owner?
Am I just one more gonner
playing house from sleep to sleep?
I have two stoops to sweep,
one east, one west exposure.
I’m tidying toward foreclosure
since I’m not mine to keep.
Then from the mortal precinct of banishment, where he questions why he cannot have a companion:
Does it have to be just me?
Can’t someone else come too?
I belong to no one. You
who made what it is to be
Estrange yourself from me
by being undying. Who
can I give this living to
if it has to be just me?
As the speaker struggles to determine what the “new me” should be, exiled from Eden — a mortal being who must till the red earth, spill blood, mate, share the pain of childbirth — the roles begin to shift (“I’ve never been your man. / Since I could choose / to love you or refuse / I’ve been a courtesan / to an immense Amen”) Kline’s psalmist begins to know himself through his “difference” from God, who is divine but abstract and alone. In the psaltery’s penultimate poem, the speaker (capable in his new state of mating and creating a new human being) plays on the idea of the holy trinity:
I’ll show you you through me.
I wonder — will you be pleased?
Or sway like a man amazed
His I has been made III?
Facsimile of thee
But no true duplicate,
I was made to fade. Just wait —
I’ll show you you through me.
“An act / of love can’t be abstract,” the speaker of the last psalm says. A God, he writes, can only be “pure human homage.”
The intelligence in this first section, which puts under intense pressure the chief conditions of our humanity (sentience, language, God-hunger, grief), saturates the entire collection. We see it in the impressive wordplay of “End-Stops,” the personae (Shapeshifter, Capitalist, Daredevil, Theorist, Convalescent) of “Monologues,” the fields of knowledge explored in “Studies,” and in the elegies and homages of “Votives.” Mirrorforms is an iconoclastic, postlapsarian devotional that offers hope annealed by the undeniable forces of the mortal coil. Here is “Blue Yonder,” a “votive” for the late novelist Sydney Blair:
I can still feel your blue,
hard like the truth is hard.
It bruises me. No word
I know could soften you.
No word can bring you to.
On the flatlands of your death
your ripcord smile is myth.
I can still feel your blue.
Michael Prior’s ferociously beautiful Burning Province is driven by several narratives — some personal, some cultural, some geographic — which all burn with the devouringly generative light of lucid dreaming. With a poised, oneiric precision, Prior moves (in trains, cars, planes, his own mind) between past and present, interior and exterior, real and imagined. While paying acute attention to the haptic world of flora and fauna, of the weather, of light and darkness, Prior folds, unfolds, and refolds the experiences of a speaker’s maternal grandparents’ confinement in a Japanese Canadian internment camp on the brink of World War II, a biracial speaker’s own engagements with prejudice, and the ever-present vexations of cultural memory in such a way that they turn into and illuminate one another everywhere.
This formal gesture of the fold is key to the magic of these poems. In several, the act of folding paper into origami shapes is mentioned explicitly. For instance, in the touchstone piece “In Cloud Country,” the making of a paper crane marks time as a family keeps vigil over a dying loved one. The poem is too long to quote in its entirety, but the three sections below demonstrate how Prior works, line by line, to conceal and reveal the past and present, the inner and outer planes and shapes of this experience:
In cloud country, water has but two states:
we feel the crease between a wave and its cold,
between us and the sun. In cloud country, your mind
settles its mist across the TV’s broken screen,
the IV’s taped labels, the metal rungs strung
along the bedframe, like ladders into a hidden room.
Here, Kyushu is a doorway left ajar, a nightlight’s
shadow shift. Here, we admit ourselves
the paper’s ninth and impossible fold — the way
we say, Hello, meaning, Hold on a little longer.
Or, I don’t know, meaning It’s true.
It is here that you promise to reveal
how to uncrimp each beak from its paper bud,
how to unfurl each wing with the perfect pressure
of fingers not yet talons, veins not yet tunnels
of wind and sleet. It is here that you mutter, I had a name
so that we understand: every animal has wings.
No dignity in indignity, you kept it all to yourself
in cloud country, where the sheets folded you
and the crinkled sheets exposed you[.]
You plead, Leave a window open,
a skylight unlocked. We flatten our faces
against the glass’s double-pane. We couldn’t
finish those final folds alone. You left us
for an image of astounding order. There was
no order. We listen to the radio for your whereabouts
until we, too, bear throats wracked by static,
blistered with Coriolis. The fields that stretch
behind the boulevard rise and evaporate easy
from their bedrock — now, no different than bed.
In cloud country, it rains newspaper cranes, it cries
Fujita scale, it hears your tectonic mumble merge
with ours: there is no scale for now and then.
You are the paper’s one hundred and third fold,
in nebula’s gauzed edge. In cloud country,
you say, Thank you. We say, Thank you.
Writers know that it is one thing to have an ecstatic or confusing experience, but quite another thing to create a meaningful version of such a state for the reader. That Prior is able to recover meaning from nightmare, silence, half-stories, and dislocation is reason enough to read this ravishing collection.
I’ve resolved last year’s resolutions
watching this bonfire fail to flame.
I’ve ignored December’s iterations,
unsolved my consolations:
a card, a call, a paper crane’s blame-
less fractions of the same.
I can’t solve for time’s absolutions
watching these embers fail to flame.
The humility and grace with which he handles his material’s “creased [and] overlapping planes” is another.
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.