The Descent
by Sophie Cabot Black
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)

In her ambitious second collection, The Descent, Sophie Cabot Black acknowledges the difficulty of the imaginative enterprise while still embracing what Keats called “negative capability”—the ability to remain content with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Black’s lyric personae repeatedly find themselves in the dilemma of whether “to remain / Or go on”—to settle for the rational intellect’s reductive attempts to make sense of reality or to forge onward into the unknown to approach a more authentic truth: “To be lost // Is to keep arriving. And so a trail becomes / All trails, perhaps a way out.” The urgency of this need to press forward into new terrain is mirrored by Black’s formal resourcefulness. While the vast majority of the 60 poems collected here are fourteen lines long, and while many echo the rhetorical movements of Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, none of the poems is rhymed and none presents the sonnet’s expected volta, or turn, in the ninth line. But despite her liberties with form, Black is a true master of controlled rhythm and cadence and of suggestive enjambment: “Two roads / Meet; after that is the work of continuing // On.” While she displays great verbal facility, Black echoes T.S. Eliot’s recurrent trouble with language as a medium in which to distill experience: “When you pray, when you / Try to pray, words do not correspond in this crowded light, // They become slippery, wrong, not what I meant at all.” Black’s taut, resonant lyrics are chastened of all excess verbiage and reveal a poet of keen assurance and consummate craft, but perhaps what most amazes the reader is that such honed writing can speak with such emotional immediacy: “It takes most of a love to find / Nothing, not even disappointment, // For in the coming is the going.”