Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City, Princeton University Press, $16.95 (paper)

Here is a blueprint to which the collection will give dimension, breadth, and depth by erecting a new edifice atop the “ancient temple” of what we have inherited, simultaneously capitalizing on the mojo of the space and erasing that space. At every turn the poems tell us what the poet is reading, and in so doing they signal that we are reading literature.In her second collection of poems, which was a finalist for last year’s National Book Award, Kathleen Graber asks, “What poem isn’t a poem / about poems, even though we work against it?” This could be the book’s thesis, a nifty question that serves as both the container and the core of the “nested boxes” that are soon to be both “secure & tumbling” as the poems roll out. Or, as Freud tells us in the book’s substantial epigraph, “on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of today . . . but, on the same site, the original edifice.”

In this regard Graber’s book is nearly a Platonic ideal of how a certain kind of contemporary poetry collection works. It progresses not simply from one rhetorical gesture to another but resists rhetoric: the “work against” the poem about poems generates all those poems about poems. The vanishing point here is transparency of thought, evidenced by the factual insertions that appear often, as in “Dead Man,” a poem about the Jim Jarmusch film. “The root of travel means torture,” the speaker tells us soberly, “having passed from Medieval Latin // into Old French.” Not that the word’s etymology isn’t worthwhile per se, but in the poem it neither eases the thing itself, nor makes it more interesting.

The poet can escape rhetoric only by fleeing into other—or others’—rhetoric, and she does so immediately, audaciously risking further alienating the reader already thrown by the initial chunk of Freud. “Beware the frontispiece poem,” the editor and poet Jeffrey Levine once advised, since few poems are hardy enough to tow the weight of a book. Graber’s frontispiece bears the outlandish title “Tolle! Lege!”—god’s command to Saint Augustine to “take up and read” Paul’s epistles to the Romans—and is accompanied by its own epigraph on the subject of conversion. The verse is one of several haiku by Kobayashi Issa scattered throughout the book. We haven’t yet reached a single line by Graber herself.

Unlike the epigraphs that many good poets end up cutting from the final versions of their poems after they have served some guiding purpose in the composition, Graber’s do not describe what the poems are about. Rather, the epigraphs illustrate what the poems do. This is entirely in harmony with Graber’s articulation of thought. The poems in The Eternal City aren’t about being about, they’re about doing, about thinking in language by allowing us to feel as though we’re seeing the seams of the thought from the inside out, even as the poem itself is complete artifice. It is fitting, then, that the first words in the book that belong to Graber herself are “In truth.” From there we’re off and running, from faith to curb shopping, pollen analysis, and, at the end of the first stanza, the first great moment in the book:

What I know of conversion
I learned while cleaning the sticky shelves of the icebox,
a glass sheet exploding as one end hit the sink’s hot suds.
For a single moment, as fissures crackled along the body,
I held something both whole & wholly shattered,
then, form gave way, it broke a second time & was gone.

Now we know where Graber stands on the conversion question. When I first read this, I wanted so much to pick on the antiquated “icebox,” the tenderness of “whole & wholly.” Why? Because, as Levine argues, the frontispiece poem will often be one of the weaker in the collection? Because it submits to a common convention in poetry publishing? But the image of the crazed glass shelf just before it becomes shards is such an excellent metaphor for the moment, not only of conversion, but of the feeling of a thought before it is put into words, of the idea before it’s mangled by language, of the form before its clean lines are spoiled by content.

The next sentence of “Tolle! Lege!” brings in William James, with his varieties of religious experience, his ephemeral, convenient conversions. The rest moves like a flow chart from the philosophical in the quotidian to the quotidian in the philosophical (“Aenigma, he writes, suggesting the face / in the mirror”), nodding at the ars poetica (“though his mirrors would have been bronze / & someone somewhere would have spent all of his days / pounding the world into something that small & shiny / & thin”), and dropping in some good liberal politics, a pastoral image or two. We wind up, perhaps predictably, perhaps inevitably, at the self and soul—Graber makes no distinction—“which, / startled almost at the start from itself, seems always now / to be awaiting its own return.”

It is fitting that Kathleen Graber’s first words in The Eternal City are ‘In truth.’

All of which is, let’s be honest, mighty conventional as poetic moves go. But Graber’s poems are not dutiful or dull. The pleasures offered by their attention to the line, the grace of their syntax, and the precision of their images are heralded by that explosive glass in the frontispiece, a sturdy engine that the poem seems to work much like the epigraph that precedes it, as synecdoche for the book as a whole. While that may also be the aim of all frontispiece poems, very few early-career poets pull it off as effectively as Graber does.

A great many of the poems that follow are built on the same model as that initial tour de force, and while this architecture can get tiresome, Graber does get a lot of mileage out of it, especially in “Dead Man,” which considers time, language, phenomenology, and the artifice of the unified self—and with it the artifice of the unified poem—via William Blake (the poet) and William Blake, the character in the Jarmusch movie. Another cinematic poem, “Fitzcarraldo,” does the same kind of work with the Werner Herzog film, phrenology, anomia, and the poet’s dog. “Letter from Cornwall: To Stephen Dunn” and “Letter from Gozo: To Gerald Stern” both use arrangements of items and activities (Buicks, Peggy Lee, a biplane hangar, fishing for giant tunny, a liver-colored pointing dog) to make touching explorations of “the great logical-linguistical dichotomies,” how “The things get tired / of the ideas; the ideas, the things,” and loneliness after loss.

The title sequence, a corona that details “Loneliness, our one defendable empire,” is the heart of the book, its literal center and its strongest section. Its simple formal constraint—the last line of one part is the first line of the next—pushes the poems into more interesting, less predictable shapes, effectively trumping the conventions of the book’s other poems with a different set of conventions. Turning toward Marcus Aurelius after her meditation on Augustine, Graber makes the Eternal City of Aurelius’s Rome into another City of God, an imagined ideal where psyches, selves, and souls are boundless. And by invoking Aurelius’s stoicism in her reflections on loneliness, Graber produces the most personal part of the book. Metaphor and parataxis are most useful to her here, where they keep the reader at just enough distance to inspire longing.

But it’s the book’s final poem that’s most interesting. Less discursive, more diction-driven, shorter in line and utterance, “The Festival at Nikko” makes many of the same moves the other poems do, alternating between ideas and objects, yet feels more honest and authoritative: “If you live / long enough, you realize that you are not / the person you were,” Graber says, only to ask, “Would I like things to be better? Yes.” Both are hardly revelatory, but I’d rather that than the coyness of hiding every feeling in home goods and fun facts, a sentimentality about ideas that seems to have become widespread. And after that honesty, the book’s final image, of a peacock in a cage, holding “its magnificence close to its sides,” achieves the resonance that had been the book’s destination all along.