Wave Books, $20 (cloth)
University of Iowa Press, $18 (paper)
Something is astir when very different new works by mature writers reveal such similar attitudes toward their traditions and trade. Call that something an impulse toward thrift—saving or fixing, salvaging or reassembling, conducting from unlikely parts something that is whole.
Caroline Knox and Susan Wheeler can imagine that any passing idiom or aesthetic ideal might, some day, be put to good poetic use. They therefore eschew iconoclasm—the paradox-of-creation ideal according to which something, or someone, must be destroyed for new art to be made. This approach may disappoint those seeking forward-looking poetry amidst ashes, written by poets so justifiably outraged by the disasters of our here and now—political, environmental, economic—that they can conceive of a more perfect poetry future only by way of a pyrrhic march through its past. We doubtless need such revolutionary measures if poets are to speak to generations who must survive the blighted world we are leaving them. But Wheeler and Knox speak now, and they are not revolutionary. Instead, they are radically inclusionary, conserving our idioms and conducting ensembles of diverse aesthetic ideals. Their new books, Knox’s Flemish and Wheeler’s Meme, enlarge the scope of contemporary poetry without dumbing it down.
The audience of these books is not limited to those who have had the luck, pluck, or privilege to study deconstructive semiotics and its auxiliaries—prerequisites for understanding many of today’s revolutionary iconoclasts—but includes readers willing to reconcile their fear of and kinship with all the crazies and outcasts who wander out of class. Knox explores the staying power of our capacity for exuberance, and Wheeler manifests both our penchant for causing despair among those closest to us and our resourcefulness in overcoming the despair we’ve been dealt.
Readers can find room for themselves in these works because Meme and Flemish exhibit a host of interests that, even if circumscribed by the ego-driven modes of lyric subjectivity, manage to avoid being exclusionary: their authors are open to authorship broadly defined. They are preoccupied with inheritance, attribution, inspiration, and collaboration across time, with ensemble processes and content. Whether what reverberates sounds like music or noise, and whether the sounds are original, groundbreaking, or new, is almost immaterial. What matters to these poets is the experience of the “performance” as an orchestrated improvisation, with the poet conducting the entrances, volume, and blend of influences and voices. The reader’s influence and voice are implicated in, perhaps even essential to, the program. Given these poets’ insistence on the primacy of lineage and the imperative to receive or to resist what gets passed down the line, who but a poem’s readers remain at the figurative end of it? True to their inclusionary impulse to assemble and preserve rather than fracture or discard, Wheeler and Knox value readers ready to bring the sum total of themselves to bear upon what they read in order to fully hear what has been orchestrated for them.
As performances go, Knox’s Flemish is more overt in its ensemble-production ethos and, in almost every sense, the lighter book. Here is the curtain-closer, “I’m Going to Rupert’s Land”:
which you have barely heard of.
We may be experiencing
the Euripides Shift: he made the chorus
half the show instead of just a tenth.
So it is with the Internet.
I’ve barely heard of Rupert’s Land myself;
you may know it takes the shape it needs.
And you have spent twelve years online. Live forever!
Later from me. Best of British Luck! We accept the omen. They sloped off.
Knox’s “I” contains an “accepting” choral “we” and an altogether more suspect “they.” “They” also refers more immediately to a poem in Flemish of the same title, in which “This worn runner has / a band of kilim at the end, // numinous and practical.” That kilim “band” is the artful weave of the border of a rug, both symbolically patterned with communal history and imbued with the individual artistry of the anonymous weaver. Yet “band” is also an ensemble much like Euripides’s chorus, which he “shifted” in his day from “just a tenth” of the action to “half the show,” a move that literally un-decimated Greek drama. Knox’s own shift toward making the fabrication of her poems part of their substantive fabric likewise re-proportions what gets valued, suggesting that her reader will encounter a collective that has not been fractionalized. Here and elsewhere, her poems insist that her practical handicraft, like the woven kilim, is of a piece with her numinous art. Though Flemish throughout is just—as in egalitarian—serious good fun, passages such as these from “I’m Going to Rupert’s Land” and “They” may be heard as an oblique riposte to the charge made against Knox’s 2008 Quaker Guns, that the poet “lacks fire power” and has “the craft of poetry but not the art.”
The packaging of Flemish, however, does not give away this propensity for variegated craft. The book has an unadorned white cover and a size that gives ample breathing room and staging to the poems appearing in its 50 section-less pages. Many feature mash-ups, such as the William Carlos Williams / e.e. cummings creature “You,” and Google-generated poems including “Joan of Arc High,” “Subjects,” and “Giant Culinary Otters.” Others do not earn their keep: few would miss “Tion” or “Marston,” though indulging them honors the ecumenical aesthetic of Knox’s chorale. The space also accommodates her many worthy poems with irregular and long lines, as well as her shaped, typographical, and found-text experiments, as in the title piece.
Two new books enlarge the scope of poetry without dumbing it down.
“Flemish” is an attributive poem, constructed almost exclusively of quotations from Knox’s daughter and sister and from the ludicrously long still-life titles of Isaak and Peter Soreau, twin painters who, for all their mastery, play silly, sibling-rivalry one-upmanship games with their art—a practice that sends up notions of the solemnity of creative influence and the divinity of inspiration. As for “Giant Culinary Otters,” the speaker says, “I read about giant otters in Jackson Mac Low’s poem / anthologized in From the Other Side of the Century, / edited by Douglas Messerli.” Essential to this whole enterprise is the fact that such credits are not relegated to a poem’s endnotes, but are integral to its form. Knox hat-tips other poets: Mac Low’s younger New York School–mate Kenneth Koch, the Quaker abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, and World War I–era poet David Jones. She embraces Koch’s antics and Jones’s parenthetical voicings. But equal billing goes, for instance, to Woody Guthrie, William Hogarth, and field-guide writer Roger Tory Peterson, who leads off the last lines of a fun-house mirror poem-within-a-verse-play (called “‘Poem’”). It is spoken by “Enid,” a character in “Coffee Cantata,” which is in turn labeled “A Poem in Envy of Cantata BMV211 by J. S. Bach”:
As Roger Tory Peterson wrote, “beezp or peent,”
As Roy Lichtenstein wrote, “tsing or bwee.”
As Wallace Stevens wrote, “ki tiri ri.”
This anxiety-free ecstasy-of-influence operates elsewhere to graver effect. The first poem in Flemish, “He Was a Chartist,” enjoins “when in doubt, add food and clothes,” sending the reader, Where’s-Waldo-like, to spot hand-knit sweaters and balaclavas, paprika and saffron, hulled berries and bouillabaisses. But the details of recipes and patterns add up to more than a postmodern heap of home economics assignments. For instance, in “Scottish Fleet Pattern Number Twenty-Four,” “a storm, a sky of black nonchalance / like a ledge . . . / in the blue searoads, the nets’ pulling” describes both a pattern for sweaters and the maritime perils of the sailors who wear them. With the suggestion that the “nets’ pulling” may also be a trawl for bodies, the poem is a reminder that the recovered remains of drowned kinfolk once could be identified only by the names and “tasks” stitched into the wool they wore “on their backs.” Like the kilim’s, the sweater’s pattern is not merely ornamental. Knox hews to Adrienne Rich’s example as she dives here into the wreck, coming up with a “coarse yarn” that features Gladys Thompson, exemplar of those possessing the craft—but not the art—to clothe, feed, bury, and name their own:
Gladys Thompson the needlewoman recorded the pattern names the guernseys have:
Ladder Stitch, Print O’ The Hoof, Anchor, Armada, Triple Sea Wave,
and these words are hers
. . .
“I found it on a broad fisherman, knitted
in black wool, and it at once
caught my eye.” “The panels go round the guernsey instead
of from the neck downwards,” to make the coarse lanolin thing which the yarn forms.
From other wrecks, the “pirated” Philadelphia and the “blown up” Reuben James, Knox hauls up not a sweater, but “Wildwood Flower.” The title refers to a song—itself based on a folk lyric—that immortalizes wartime sea disasters; the poem chronicles the unlikely communal trajectories and ongoingness of otherwise end-stopped lives. And yet, such somber notes as those in “Scottish Fleet Pattern Number Twenty-Four” and “Wildwood Flower” are a leitmotif in the light-opera that is Flemish.
• • •
By contrast, Wheeler, in Meme, is not one to hand over her scores and road maps, or to relinquish the algorithmic search-engine records of her efforts to chart a viable course through the dark terrain of her subjects. She has done so elsewhere, however, most explicitly in her 2001 Source Codes, where she pays her own tribute to Mac Low, and where she exploits more exhaustively even than Knox the infinite permutations of digital, “collective” compositional modes.
Meme might be best understood as the organically conceived offspring of the code-inseminated artifices of the earlier work. In this respect Meme is more traditionally “written” by the poet alone than it is dependent upon its reader’s complementary wide-angle lens. The ensemble nature of the work comes through less in its construction than in its polyvocal content. As a result, Meme is more circumscribed than Flemish, as befits Wheeler’s chorus of voices that cannot be escaped. The effect is arguably more far-reaching, despite the poet’s self-imposed formal strictures. Meme traverses a more subtly allusive landscape than Flemish, one whose signposts either are missing or serve less to orient the reader than to mark the continuum from individual “split” psyche to the familial collective that shapes it. Wheeler’s “I” is therefore an altogether more disturbing composite than the “we” and “they” of Flemish. Her “I” is made up of internalized “introjects”—those inescapable voices of damaged, demon family members who are the inherited viral memes of her title. If the end of Knox’s line is an invocation, then the end of Wheeler’s is a rope—one that cinches off the reader within the confines of the polyphonic echo chamber of her speaker’s skull.
This domestic horror show is prefigured by the etiolated doll’s face that adorns the blue-black cover of the book, a compact three-sectioned, 85-pager. The cover design also complements Meme’s aural and scenic deployment of montage—a term and technique that, for its association with filmmaking, Wheeler prefers to collage. The prose poems of the middle section, “The Devil—or—The Introjects,” and the formally varied works of the final section, “The Split,” are untitled, typically arrive one per page, and occasionally are no more than a sentence in length. Only “The Maud Poems” of the first section have titles, but these are interchangeable with the clichés and colloquialisms of Maud, the mother figure whose claustrophobia-inducing voice dominates and infects that of the daughter, whose perspective is filtered through an adult consciousness couched in offset stanzas. The daughter’s first utterance—in the opening poem, “Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail”—is a question: “Where is there room for all I have to say / in the deepening dark of fall’s afternoon?” As the tale of an innocent sacrificed to the will of those who mistreat her, Meme becomes a partial answer. Its poems are accounting rooms, as it were, of “sayings.” “Turkey in the Straw,” quoted here in full, is a typical entry:
Better get cracking. You’re the one who made it an uphill battle; your brother’sgoing great guns.
Stasis of the street behind her, through the
window: leaves unstirred, grass erect,
dun dun dun distant thud of pavement-breakers
in the noon.I don’t want to hear a word from you until you pick up steam. Now go findMinneapolis. Get lost.
Wheeler can exalt or revivify clichés and arcane regionalisms with the best of them (Paul Muldoon comes to mind), a trait she shares with Knox. But her unique gift in Meme is to have these sayings chime freshly in the ears of the reader, whom she has brought into the mind of the daughter who is hearing them for the first time. The rich metaphorical veins to be mined in Maud’s speech make the depiction of the daughter very much a portrait of the poet as a young girl, one whose parsing of what it can possibly mean to get oneself “cracking” or “lost” turns life threatening. Complicating the matter, of course, in the way that inheritance is always double-edged, is the fact that the mother who dispenses these self-fulfilling sayings must also be credited with having made her daughter a master manipulator of them. The irony of “The Maud Poems,” one that falls shy of being a failing because it underscores the seductive, insinuating power of figurative language, is that the reader more readily falls for the voluble Maud’s received maxims than for the rendered voice of the daughter-poet. Like her, we are attracted to Maud’s voice but ultimately repelled by it. And yet we are never truly free of it.
Readers can find room for themselves in these works.
Maud’s toxic allure requires the ballast of Propertius, whose elegies supply Meme’s epigraph—What is my great offence?—and presage its three sections: “As for the poems you composed in my honour, / burn them, I pray: cease to win praise through me”; “Such are the deadly curses my page prophesies for you: / learn to dread the end that awaits your beauty”; and, finally, “Never, however long, does love last long enough.” These oracular, accumulative forebodings, together with the deliberate uselessness or absence of textual signposting, approximate for the reader a sense of the psychic unmooring felt by Maud’s daughter. With her banishment, the reader of Meme is tossed headlong into postmodern peril, and left to make her own way amid conflated characters and undesignated speech. “What are these things, shards between pages like blades”— the question immediately arises after one such mystery, clues to which include glancing reference to incest and other violations:
wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait
I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m
not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not
done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done
Such utterances appear “like the headless stairway struck still in rubble.” In lines that echo Marianne Moore’s “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron,’” her paean to the courage of the ostrich or “camel-sparrow,” Wheeler points out that the “stricken” and “headless” stairs
go nowhere, the stairs looking thin themselves, though they are made of the fastest iron,
measly and thin, though they are made of
the fastest iron.
These lines are a reminder that the secret to the ostrich’s unlikely survival lies in its ability (better than extinct large birds) to maintain hyper-vigilance, its voracious and indiscriminate appetite, and its habit for head-in-the-sand behaviors that appear delusional. In fact, such bird-brained habits—or denial-driven “coping strategies”—are another means of foraging up some scrap that, although it can never fuel flight, proves nourishing enough to generate escape-velocity speed. In the center of the same untitled poem, the speaker—a single speaker—asks
Such is the state of our poetry caught in my throat on its way
to my mouth, why not do everything
Why indeed not? It takes courage—or “daring,” in Knox’s lexicon—to subsume a “harde”-caught, hard-won voice into a chorale. But it takes generosity, too, to “do everything” with so many unheard and even unbearable voices. The do-everything ensembles exemplified by Meme and Flemish promise readers multiple points of entry. In lesser hands, such multitasking arrangements would feel like intellectual skimming or, worse, like anti-intellectual busy work that is the definition of craft many would cordon off from art. But Knox privileges ensemble arrangements for a thrift that paradoxically leads to abundance. In Wheeler’s countervailing example, an abundance of compositional stances and materials reminds us that being crafty can also mean being a manipulator—and that being thrifty can lead to tightfistedness, an impoverished spirit. What results, what can be heard, are poems whose making and matter—and whose capacity or refusal to mean—require something of, and give to, so many.
Photograph: Nottingham Trent University