Desesperanto: Poems 1999–2002
W.W. Norton & Co., $23.95 (cloth)
Carcanet Press, $9.95 (paper)
W.W. Norton & Co., $22.95 (cloth)
Contemporary Anglophone poetry, critics and poets have long argued, is at a bitterly embattled crossroads. On one side clamor the more radically experimental writers such as Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, and their kind, whose lively reputations as rebellious innovators seem oddly uncompromised by either the strongly academic bent of their production or the near-fanatical devotion of their scholarly critics. On the opposing side (it is said) toil the hopelessly retro, uninventive capital-F Formalists, such as the Bush appointee to the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, and Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and John Hollander, a club whose members might be more likely to be honored with lifetime achievement awards rather than the Kingsley Tufts or the MacArthur. No wonder we worry that people are reading less and less poetry, given the polarized choices and demands for allegiance that critics and poets so often present to their audiences, not to mention the degree to which so much of today’s poetry both encourages and relies upon such stereotypes.
Yet surely poetry in a world as richly diverse as ours need not be so rigidly and simplistically categorized. As a reader who finds it quite possible to admire both Derek Walcott and Frank Bidart—and who (for the record) rejects the glib assignations I just sketched above—I want to discredit the notion that poetry is at war with itself. Especially discomfiting in such a dichotomized view of poetry is the assumption that novelty and innovation equate not only with experimentalism but also with liberal politics. What to make, then, of Martín Espada, whose occasional sonnet or villanelle cries out with the same rage at social injustice as do his free-verse poems, or Reginald Shephard, a gay African-American poet whose stylistically inventive writing is characterized by an eloquence and internal consistency that on some level can only be regarded as meticulously “formal,” and whose trenchant lyricism is nothing if not “traditional”? Or the likes of the Australian Kate Lilley or our own homegrown Maureen Seaton, who slink seamlessly between pantoums and proems, their feminism and antiwar activism on colorful display? Even that venerable postmodernist poster girl Anne Carson betrays her roots as a classics scholar in her reverently structured translations of Sappho, proving to us that even in the fragment dwells an abiding desire for wholeness, and that indeed categories exist in part to be defied.
Similar discordance exists on the more formalist end of what might be better conceived of as a purely stylistic spectrum, in the work of such so-called New Formalists as Don Share, whose verse invites the colloquial rhythms of his native down-at-heels Tennessee as a kind of counterpoint to his elegant use of received forms; Rachel Wetzsteon, who sets modern relationships in Manhattan to the communal music of the 16th-century villanelle and the even older triolet; and standard-bearers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, the author of at once mordant and mellifluent quatrains on racism, and Richard Howard, renowned for his insistently erudite and polymorphously complex explorations of identity. Given the tremendous variety of poets who continue to explore the possibilities of traditional modes of versification, it cannot be at all surprising, in the end, to encounter other such joyfully successful transgressive formalist poets as those whose most recent titles will be the subject of this review: Mimi Khalvati, Marilyn Hacker, and Rosanna Warren.
Mimi Khalvati, an Iranian-born citizen of the United Kingdom, presents us with perhaps the most compelling recent example of world-naming, which is perhaps the central project of any significant poet. The world that she names in her new collection The Chine is, of course, a complicated one, inflected by the tensions between her native and adopted cultures and languages, which is why it so deeply interests us; she confronts us with a problem we all share, that of seeming alien to ourselves in our own familiar surroundings. Her title, an uncommon geographical term for a ridge or rocky prominence, immediately sets the stage for our potential estrangement, the non-native speaker forcing us to go to the OED, hinting at the difficulty of the terrain ahead. The nature of such inchoate, inherently wordless obstacles, and the humane impulse to bridge them, is illustrated in one of the book’s finest poems, “Writing Home,” which begins:
As far back as I remember, ‘home’
had an empty ring. Not hollow, but visual
like a place ringed on a map, monochrome
in a white disc. Around it were the usual
laurel hedges, the chine, the hockey pitch,
the bridge. On one side, the crab-apple tree
with its round seat, whose name puzzled me, which
wasn’t surprising since everyone but me
seemed to understand such things, take for granted
apples can’t be eaten, crabs can be planted.
The speaker in this auspicious first stanza immediately and effectively articulates the gripping plight of her dislocation, which is only heightened by her mastery of her second language’s rhythms and rhymes. Even if she does not understand it perfectly, as in her literal misapprehension of the crab-apple tree, she must rely on this foreign tongue to help her to locate herself. Thus, we feel in the (also literally) ringing iambs and seamless rhymes her act of self-orientation as she recites the geography of what we soon learn is the Isle of Wight, the chilly, inhospitable setting of the proper English boarding school to which her parents have sent her from Tehran.
Her empowering relationship to language only grows more complex, and more utterly apparent, as she moves inwardly from mapping herself to the exterior landscape toward the more arduous internal journey of the imaginative return to her true home. “Writing home meant writing in that ring, mostly / to Mummy,” who is a distant, bodiless figure, a face framed by white fur in a photograph. In the litany of details she puts forth in her letters, the young castaway’s routines come alive: “Not for me, but to trace / highlights someone could follow: Brownies, Thinking / Day, films, a father’s hockey match, a play / called Fairy Slippers, fire drills, swimming. / Even the death of a King. When my birthday? / I wrote at the same time, dropping the ‘is,’ / too proud of my new question mark to notice.” We are witness here to the birth of a wonderfully mongrel imagination, a new world taking shape, which is at once fluidly luminous (all those deliciously lilting “l” sounds) and yet has its jagged, risky edges (the abrupt enjambment of “Thinking / Day,” as if thinking every day might pose a certain danger).
The poet’s true mettle shows best in the final stanza, in which the speaker of the poem realizes her gift is an ironic metaphor for thwarted communication. It takes all the formidable resources of her art to speak in both directions across her exile, to prove to her roots that she can still love them across injury, and to her foster homeland that she merits a place in its beautiful chorus of distinctive voices:
My mother kept all my letters for ten years,
then gave them back to me. Perhaps they never
touched her, were intended only for my ears
for I never knew her then or asked whether
she made sense of them, if my references
to the small world of a girls’ school in England
had any meaning. It was the fifties. Suez,
Mossadegh, white cardies, Clarks sandals. And,
under the crab-apple tree, taking root,
words in a mouth puckered from wild, sour fruit.
So the poet arrives at her understanding of her own identity. The formerly incomprehensible crab-apple tree now provides a kind of nourishment. More than the pretty staple of the lyric we might encounter in stale formalist writing—as if the whole purpose of poetry were simply to record some privileged impression of the world’s natural beauty—this brilliant poet’s crab-apple tree imparts the same kind of gorgeous and devastating self-knowledge granted Eve by the biblical Tree of Life. Her letters, though they are returned to her, an act that is an echo of primal rejection, cannot and will not be unwritten. Instead, we have this thrilling, strong-spirited, and utterly original poem, one not coincidentally rendered in sonnets, ripe with the wise and loving recognition that with our quest for self-fulfillment, even when it seems imposed on us from without, comes the terribly liberating prospect of lost innocence.
Any number of other poems could be cited from Khalvati’s superb volume that would further attest to her genius for translating in this way what might superficially seem old or recycled idioms into something novel and almost entirely her own (the collection includes villanelles, terze rime, and even a heroic crown of sonnets), but I feel compelled to conclude with her stunning “Ghazal.” Here is an example of an experiment with language perhaps only possible through this kind of refreshing interrogation of form that is as anti-elitist and intellectually provocative as anything claiming to be “alternative”: the refugee importing a little-known form (the ghazal) into our consciousness, akin to sneaking the contraband of a strange foodstuff past the customs agents at Heathrow:
If I said every tear, each sob, each sigh
quietens, stops and all our tears soon dry,
If I said every voice stung to the cry
‘What is the point?’ doesn’t want a reply,
If I said time will tell, heal, steal, fly—
take it, give it, do with it as you’re done by,
But if hopelessness did, who would deny
its right to be heard, if hope were to try,
Who’d argue over love? Who’d follow my
example? You, my love? Then who am I
The paradox of something so novel arising out of something so ancient (the ghazal is a few millennia old, originating in pre-Christian Persia) is in itself satisfying, a reminder of the tremendous wealth awaiting rediscovery, overlooked in our haste to stake out the latest and farthest boundary.
Sadly, we live in a time when such resources are often neglected, such gifts refused outright because they are not self-consciously marked as broken, because they are too lovely in light of all the irremediable harm we know very well we have inflicted on one another. Yet even in the face of our world’s cruelest acts, we remain burdened by our obsession with naming, for trying to make sense of the senseless. Such is the genesis of Marilyn Hacker’s newest book Desesperanto, in which the possibility of healing amidst despair seems so profoundly elusive it demands the creation of an entirely new language—which becomes the neologism that titles her collection. Rather than resorting to either extreme—to conventional deployments of received forms or to radical deconstruction of those comforting structures—Hacker spectacularly redefines the old rules while managing to resist bleakly chic atonality, to serve the great and ultimately undeniable human need to bear witness.
Hacker’s duel with hopelessness extends from the deeply private realm of lost love to the eminently visible oppression of marginalized and dispossessed communities. The two seem to merge, briefly and burningly, in the poem “Max,” in which the speaker mourns all that she has lost, both personal and public:
Last year I lost a proper name, the name
I answered to, which was my grandfather’s
and now am nameless, even in the bad dream
where someone else has all the right answers
and I am wrong and wrong and nothing that’s
true was true and every last word’s hers:
bad dreams like costive shit from sluggish guts,
the residue of loss. More things I lost:
savoy sausages with hazelnuts;
a brindled pit pull bounding for a tossed
ball in the dog run; Korean groceries’
lilacs in buckets under car exhaust
on Broadway, a blossoming line of cherry trees,
a key in a lock, a twilight saxophone
positing lyrical philosophies
of meditation, of revolution;
the right of way on a square mile of streets
someone might do their shopping on with someone;
desire not dried and shriveled by regrets;
the place that I came back to when I came;
the torch singer’s trite rhyme of “lust” and “trust”;
the beloved child’s freedom, that freedom
to spiral farther and farther out from home
since each trajectory loops back toward home
where someone calls her by her proper name.
If Khalvati’s primary poetic gesture is a gathering inward, Hacker’s seems to strike out into the world as she moves from the loss of her name (presumably the intimate nickname she was called by her lover) through a catalog of the rich panoply of sights and sounds in her immediate neighborhood and on out toward the limitlessness of a favorite musical instrument’s “lyrical philosophies // of meditation, of revolution.” This trajectory rehabilitates the staid lyric, exploding its definition from the more typical, quietly observed moment (“meditation”) to a grand instrument for redemption and even activism (“revolution”). In “Max,” the personal cannot be separated from the political; loss is both physically manifest in the “costive shit” that roils the speaker’s body and also figuratively stolen from all of humankind when she contemplates at the poem’s end the meanings of her “freedom.”
This ultimately heartening vision of Hacker’s, this willingness through the poems that she makes to be implicated at once in the pleasures and troubles of our divided world—indeed, the difficult presence of these divisions seems magnified here in her ninth book, as she shuttles between New York and Paris, between her teaching and writing personae, between her guises of witness and elegist—is why she remains one of our truly indispensable poets, at once cleverly subversive and eloquently plainspoken. Consider the inspired use to which she puts the familiar sestina in “Morning News”:
Spring wafts up the smell of bus exhaust, of bread
and fried potatoes, tips green on the branches,
repeats old news: arrogance, ignorance, war.
A cinder block wall shared by two houses
is new rubble. On one side was a kitchen
sink and a cupboard, on the other was
a bed, a bookshelf, three framed photographs.
Glass is shattered across the photographs;
two half-circles of hardened pocket bread
sit on the cupboard. There previously was
shelter, a plastic truck under the branches
of a fig tree. A knife flashed in the kitchen,
merely dicing garlic. Engines of war
move inexorably toward certain houses
while citizens sit safe in other houses
reading the newspaper, whose photographs
make sanitized excuses for the war.
There are innumerable kinds of bread
Brought up from bakeries, baked in the kitchen:
The date, the latitude, tell which one was
dropped by a child beneath the bloodied branches.
The world Hacker calls into our collective consciousness is indeed woefully damaged, but she refuses to abandon it. Rather, the repeated end words of the sestina’s lines come to feel like a kind of repair, a putting back together or rearranging of the shards, perhaps representing a resilient hope for making something new out of the same old injustices. Yet she is never a Pollyanna, eager to use the amazing accomplishment of her formal acumen to distract us from what she observes. The acrid smell of bus exhaust mixes with the comforting aroma of baking bread; the knife in the kitchen is ominous for a moment, then “merely” domestic. The ownerless plastic truck, emblem of vulnerability, mutely suggests innocence and its destruction, since we are not specifically told whether it is the child’s blood that stains the tree’s branches.
One might be tempted to ask whether Hacker’s poetry, even as it so courageously depicts a flawed humanity and simultaneously enacts the possibility of rekindling empathy, succeeds in actually abetting positive change. It is a tribute to the power of Hacker’s art that we even come to ponder such a question. So vivid are her images, so compelling her owned complicity, we find ourselves wondering about those faces in the photograph under shattered glass, about the fate of the nameless child who dropped the bread to flee as bombs rained down, forgetting for a moment that they are characters in a poem. The paradox, of course, is that they are not just figments of the imagination—that somewhere in the Palestinian territories or Serbia or South Africa countless homes have been demolished, and though perhaps it is finally impossible to comprehend another person’s suffering, through art or any act of will, it is through the soulfulness and unflinching honesty of the likes of Hacker, sifting through the dazzling rubble of language, that we recall our responsibility to try.
Rosanna Warren, in her new volume Departure, also honors this singularly humane duty. Like Hacker and Khalvati, she does so through a poetry that seems capable of occupying two places at once—in her case, it is not just form, but also more explicitly narrative, that together provide the scaffolding for her imaginative restorations. Thus we find poems that do indeed depart from such foundational sources as The Iliad and The Aeneid alongside poems written in forms of Warren’s own invention. In “March Snow,” for example, she takes up the classical theme of our impermanence, updating it with her playful and yet deadly serious voice:
Will it be gentle as this slow down-drifting
of the last flakes of winter, our separation?
The last one, I mean. The one we imagine
in a hospital room, with dim machines humming.
I hardly think so. Here outside my window
March wafts into extinction
as snow clumps melt from the roof and lapse
from boughs like loosened shawls falling.
All silent. The damp street steams.
This morning the house clamored with children
yanking brushes through hair, pulling on extra socks,
then suddenly the door slammed and out they went
into the soft, illusory drifts of early spring,
their lunch boxes swinging primary yellow and blue
against the belated white, small boots stamping a trail
that will melt into the future by late afternoon.
Warren revises our traditional associations with the seasons; spring in her surprising poem is the time of imminent death (“March wafts into extinction”), the snow’s melting is a metaphor for dissolution, the trees dressed in “shawls” suggest mourning. Even the modern-day kinetics of this household is engulfed in the ominous silence of this dislocated time of the year; out into the perilous future, into which their boot tracks will soon vanish, she almost gladly sends her children. Thus she is briefly both a heartless Medea and a beleaguered soccer mom, uniquely situated to reflect on the omnipresence of signs of our mortality, even at life’s tenderest beginnings.
If the off- and internal rhymes of “March Snow” contribute to a muffled, snow-day quality—we are disarmed as much as we are dismayed by its conclusion—elsewhere the collision of such fundamental narratives with the preoccupations of our moment yield the kind of verbal pyrotechnics for which Warren is renowned. From among many possible examples, I must choose to close with a consideration of her shocking “What Leaves,” in part because of its inherent finality:
Evening congeals in the Forum but the story ambles
on behind columns, beyond the broken pedestal,
only a different story from the one we knew:
those figures are smaller, strolling over eons of mud,
than they suppose; an axe-blade of light
lops your shoulder from you spine, your head is absorbed
into the idea of an arch that has lost its bearings.
No one triumphs. No one’s face is painted red.
If we are prisoners, it’s in a private war
not chronicled in shadows clotting. The art
is all in not being becalmed, in a meal, in a purchase,
in love: you are hunting a displaced person
who wandered off toward the vanishing point
but cracked and fell into the middle distance;
and if I follow, I’ll be prying up shards
from this thickening pâté of dimness as it collects.
You leave a trail, but we are taken to pieces
into a story of processions, oratory, betrayal,
the severed head and hands impaled on a podium.
It’s all in the giving up, as when, back on our hill,
the fountain pulses against a pelting rain
and rain strikes back into the fountain pool
and the fountain acknowledges the epic of water
and keeps spurting, from its aorta, its own small line.
Warren here reveals that old stories may indeed be the most timely ones; the tribulations of our day, from the atrocities of war to the hubris of triumph over evildoers, are but reenactments of those in our past. It is the great Roman civilization that beheaded Cicero (a note at the book’s end tells us his execution in 43 BC in part prompted the poem’s writing), awful metaphor for our uncanny ability to frustrate our own progress. Yet in Warren’s harrowing version of events neither “the broken pedestal” nor the toppled arch can stymie the speaker’s words, the fragments unearthed from the “dimness” have no meaning unto themselves, and even the heinous body parts impaled on stakes fail to intimidate us. Instead, it is the synthesis of art, the joyously creative act of poiesis, that can and does propel us toward the “the epic of water,” where we can finally be immersed in the genuine horror of a life extinguishing, and at the same time, Warren implies, be washed clean. Ironically, it is in “the giving up,” the relinquishing of the intellect’s control over the story, in the most ecstatic and intuitive impulse to make poems, drenched in our own warm blood, that allows the splicing of our own pulses to world’s eternally bleeding, but never fatally wounded, heart.
Perhaps we can conclude, then, that poetry at its best joins the viscerally experienced to the cognitively expressed. Poets like Khalvati, Hacker, and Warren remind us that what defines us as human—not simply that we suffer and feel joy, but that we also possess the imaginative and intellectual capacity for knowing we do—is reason for hope. We can hope that more poets will follow their example and acknowledge that poetry, far from becoming another means of dividing us, remains instead an occasion for a self-knowledge that encourages empathy, community, and the care for the other that our shattered worlds require.