To venture into Danielle Blau’s p e e p, a collection which has just won the 16th Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, is to embark on a complicated ride, or, as the saying now goes, an immersive experience: varied in texture and pace, full of unexpected twists and turns, always intense. Or reading p e e p resembles a visit to a museum whose every gallery offers not only a different exhibit but a distinct atmosphere and mood. Some galleries prove to be cavernous, opening out into one spacious room after another. Other exhibits unfold in strictly limited spaces: among these are a villanelle, a few lapidary vignettes, and a prose poem (or chorus? oratorio?) entitled “We’re Human, All of Us Girls, and We’re Young,” occasioned by the “108th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” p e e p also offers a tour through space (lots of Brooklyn and Queens geography) and time (recurrent childhood memories).
Negotiating such varied poetic textures and spaces is a challenge; it’s also a salient part of the experience of reading a book whose very title is multivalent. “Peep” is a palindrome, a noun, a verb, an imperative. The word commands us to pay close attention to what may be private and hard to discern unless we lean in, and that emphasis on looking connects to the book’s recurrent trope of an immersive mirror, a space in which a face can lose itself. It’s also, of course, a noun for such a searching look; and secondarily (I only thought of this later), both a noun and verb signifying a shrill weak cry, as of a hatchling’s first utterance. The collection’s closing poem offers “one more / vapor / thin peep in the air …”
The animating spirit throughout is one of distilled complexity. The constant pulsation of Blau’s poetic energy means that the pauses are pleasurable but also suspenseful: where will the poet’s restless intelligence lead us next? The authoritative and ominous “Villanelle” dramatizes our own dizzying search for signs of order, a thread for the labyrinth:
There is an order. Such an order.
Each event a word that must be read
or else, my friend — Today I woke up shorter,
sleep playing pestle to my twin bed’s mortar,
me the poor shaved meat. But no regret —
an order to these things, you see, there’s order.
Each man a crack at playing cosmic sorter.
Within each uncracked code-shell is a threat.
Today, take notice; time is getting shorter.
Two speckled eggs. Omens from the Lord, or
Nature, the clouds, some darker silhouette.
Listen, my friend: what they say’s an order.
And at this moment’s close, you’ll cross the border
into the moment after — seems no end
of days lived longly but they’re short and shorter
at each turn, the world speaks: I record her
though she only talks in languages long dead,
there is an order — yes — an awful order
my friend, wake up! Your shadow’s growing shorter.
p e e p sometimes feels like more than one book: so many surprises, so many voices, are packed in. You get the sense that the mind of the maker is always spinning ahead, that it takes an effort for her to stand still. Such moments of stasis come to feel like respite, all the more rewarding because we know they won’t last. Isn’t that how the mind works, spinning backwards, pausing on a memory, putting pieces of experience into an order it then swiftly dismantles en route to the next discovery? I don’t always follow Blau’s twists and turns; I can’t always keep up with her headlong pace. But I’m never less than confident that she knows exactly what she’s doing: the dives and plunges, the explorations and lamentations, the overheard dialogue and the child’s plaintive presence all testify to the poet-philosopher, whose forthcoming study, Rhyme or Reason: Poets and Philosophers on the Problem of Being Here Now (Norton), promises to provide a rich and varied feast.