Alice James Books, $11.95 (paper)
University of Georgia Press, $15.95 (cloth)
When poetry engages politics, reviewers typically respond in one of two ways. Either they laud the poet for bearing witness to the latest human disaster, or they lambaste the poet—especially when he or she is a comfortable, American academic—for appropriating geographically, historically, or experientially distant suffering to make the poetry current, award-worthy, provocative, neat. One way to avoid poetics that encourage such reductive readings is for the poet to propose an inclusionary ethos. Rather than playing the sensitive witness, the insightful prophet, or even the guilt-ridden bourgeois, the poet proposes an ethical stance—through speaker, form, and image—that attempts to redraw conventional human boundaries, to show that political presence is personal presence, that what happens "there" is always what is happening here.
Both Lee Upton's Civilian Histories and Claudia Keelan's Utopic pursue this ethical strategy. In Civilian Histories, Upton writes from the margins inward. She starts from historical figures, marginalized narratives, fragmented pasts, and lyrical riffs that echo on the edges of our culture, society, and civilization, and connects that discordant singing with the various activities, appetites, and desires that make us all similar. As its title suggests, Keelan's book offers an ideal. Aiming to embrace the exiled and disenfranchised selves in the world and in the self, she asks readers to realize the glorious epiphany of Rimbaud's "Je est un autre." The book says look here, this is possible—among the broken and bandaged, fractured and fragmented, the nay-sayers and the no-doers, this word and way, utopic, endures.
Upton is a very smart writer. Author of Obsession and Release: Rereading the Poetry of Louise Bogan and The Muse of Abandonment, among other titles, her critical work on such American poets as James Tate, Louise Glück, and Charles Wright shows a reader intensely engaged with ways in which poets have written against absence or, more accurately, into felt absences and abandonments. Her poetry frequently moves on similar terrain, as in these lines from "Censorship":
Erasure of hair
makes a white space—
like a leech examining
a spine for its mouth.
To stop imagining
who blows cold air
into the woman's torso,
shiploaded and rotting—
into the core of
to the imagination and
this other supplement,
the censor of the imagination […]
Which build to the following close:
To not see:
a form of training
or a choice.
What are we good for?
What was done to our own that we must watch?
Here Upton is compelled by the relationship between presence and absence and all of the orbital connections that arise from that dichotomy: subject/object, viewer/viewed, parasite/host, lived presence/absent past. We are all observers, and few realize the censorship implicit in our watching, in our ineluctable "not seeing."
From Mary Rowlandson to Cassandra, from Desdemona to Prufrock's mermaids, Upton negotiates the intersection of personal lives and public conflicts. The boundaries, as "Censorship" and many other poems explore, are more subtle construct than clear presence. Consider these lines from "That Arm Again," which begins with "A man holding up his arm in a restaurant…. This was long ago in a communist country," and ends with the man toting his injured arm like a talisman:
A smaller man ran at his side as if
the injured man were holding a cake that might
at any moment slide off a platter.
And the arm—the man with the arm
looked like he was thinking:
I must return it.
It appears now that it was never mine.
The ghost of Tito lingers behind the poem, but not as any specific allusion; the poem conjures that apparition, but not to make the reader specifically connect "the arm" to Yugoslavia. Instead, the reference shows how the implications of such referencing, the allusion that supposedly bridges private and public suffering, leads to the loss of the immediacy of present pain. When the bleeding arm of the poem—and the smaller, vulture-like man waiting for it to become carrion—are transformed into emblems of some greater suffering, then bodies become mere representative vessels for a pain that is never completely human. An arm is "not yours" when it is a trope; pain is not yours when it becomes "suffering." Titling the poem "That Arm Again" laments the frequency of this transformation.
Upton's threnodic treatment of Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative further illustrates this dynamic. As a "civilian" living on the margins of the masculine, where history is supposedly made, Rowlandson's plight becomes historic through her narration of the events of captivity at the hands of the Narrangasett Indians. More importantly, her narrative—written by a woman and concerned with "domestic" matters—showed how provisional were the divisions between the personal and political spheres. In Upton's hands, the hero of The Sovereignty and Goodness of God … A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson becomes a poignant testimony to how civilian histories embody the historical without severing limbs, without neglecting the tales' human core. Other shorter poems in the book—such as "First Vengeance" and "The Crying Room"—echo this project. Sensual, intelligent, and informed by a desire to embrace that which has been excluded, Upton's Civilian Histories is a moving exploration that forces readers to realize how many censoring forces compel them into various captivities of history.
"History is the gap / through which the lessons fall," Claudia Keelan asserts in Utopic, a powerful and moving collection. Yes, the book has forerunners; Keelan enumerates her debts through epigraph and a brief afterword: Thoreau, Emerson, Freud, Kraus, Weil, Gandhi, and King. One could also point out the formal lineage of the book, from the explosive explorations of Apollinaire to the projective progenations of Olson—as well as the syntactic and metapoetic, from Rimbaud to Berryman to Graham. But no such delineation would address sufficiently the sheer passion of this book's enterprise. Utopic is a cry in the wilderness, a haunting echo of Thoreau's admonition that our lives need to become a "counter friction to stop the machine"—whether such effort brings pain upon ourselves or not.
The opening section of the book is entitled "Zion," after that idealized yet elusive paradise on earth, that supposed homeland. "My Twentieth Century" opens the collection, and its movement from considering "Summit Dwellers" to its invitation to "summit dwellers" articulates in microcosm the movement of the book, the subtle distinction between capital and lower case being paramount. The end of the poem reads:
Whether construction is permissible or not
prayer/a bird/I on behalf of readers
invite "summit dwellers" say
It is better to appear to
than to be to […]
"Zion" is a particular articulation of the ideal, an attempt to limit, define, constrain in word and being where we might find alleviation from the exile that is our living in the world. No single place, no one word will offer such sinecure; to believe so is to create a hierarchy among those welcomed (such as that implied by capital letters). Keelan knows this, and she will have nothing to do with definitional limits; as "Oktober" asserts, she rejects "language's irreparable / backwardness, its continual / substitution of interpretation / for perception." Perception is always provisional; whether through a glass darkly or by a rosy fingered dawn, the world's gift to the senses is boundless, generative, multiple, and open to interpretation. It is glorious and god-like in that it is unique and free: liberty is seeing anew again and again and again.
In "To the New World," she writes, "I'll be as clear as I can / My sonknows the puddle is an ocean," she continues:
I'm seeing a world, no, a room, or
a space like a musical phrase
princess, sister/s'aint & tribe
imperfect under funeral flowers
P/ity Merc (I) (Y) Peace
All alone in our boats
Alone in our boats—boats of pilgrimage across the wide sea to the new promised paradise, boats of persistent existence in our present day struggles with peace and mercy, pity and love. Each world is a room, each room a world, and Keelan's poetry—through syntax, typography, verb tense, and image—brings us toward the realization that our being in the world is our realizing the world in every being. The puddle is an ocean. Realizing that, our stomp and splash gives way to astonished wonder, without which there can be no sisters, saints, princesses, music, or tribes—and without which, most grievously, there can be no "Luve," only lonely sojourners in boats.
But sometimes pain seems unavoidable, as in "Bluff City," one of the best long poems of the last decade. Realized in that actual bluff city, Memphis, Tenn., the poem begins with an epigraph from Thoreau's "Plea for Captain John Brown": "the same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will clear it again … it seems as if no one had ever died in America before; in order to die you must first have lived." After this invocation, Keelan explores how "(a child) … (a nation)" became inseparably intertwined with civil rights—the child as particular self, the nation as a vision of all those selves, but both only provisional hence parenthetical. Over the course of this poem's reveries, the difficulties of civil disobedience—potential suffering as means to liberation—are revealed as the difficulties of being in the world: violence, suffering, and the fear of one's neighbor are at the core of any prejudicial living. These concerns progressively merge with Keelan's reaction to the city where the Lorraine Motel stands as an awkward testament to Martin Luther King Jr.'s difficult vision that "If there is no struggle there is no / progress." Keelan's living near that very spot—her being there—provides the energy for a nexus in which emotion and belief mix into a poignant and hopeful testimony.
The poem ends:
I had not begun not believing
in a center, a self's
or this city's but thinking
to make one or find
one or only to find
one in the making.
The making of a life is the making of a poem, and vice versa. Keelan's poem shows how acts and arts can avoid becoming like "artificial coffee memorialized in black plastic" in the museum that King's Lorraine Motel room has become. Social, personal, political, ideological stances must not become static if they are to remain open to the marginalized. The column of absence in these poems, the disruption of expectation in syntax and grammar, an artful play with convention are all connected to the centerless affirmation of an active emptiness in the world, a technique and ethos embracing possibility and otherness. For Thoreau, this practice was silence. For Gandhi, passive resistance. For King, the beloved community's courtesy to those previously kept out. For Weil, a withdrawn God. For all of them, the hope for a world with (no other way to say it) more love.
The book ends with a reverie. The self abandoned to desert, to child, to each moment's bounty of perceptive delight shapes a music that is delightful and haunting. In her endnotes, Keelan writes of "Daybook" and "Gravity and Grace," poems "orchestrated" from Emerson's and Weil's writings, respectively, so that "The reader is welcome to sing along in the empty spaces." Such welcome, frequently absent from poetry that engages language as language, is a signature aspect ofUtopic. Simply, the poems offer a compelling music—and the musicfeels good. We are not left struggling with "meaning" or trying to (de)-codify a theoretical matrix. To put it another way, Keelan's book accomplishes a glorious synthesis of spiritual, political, and philosophical traditions that emphasize unity, openness, and love with a poetic tradition that has frequently been thought of as exclusionary and difficult.
Like Thoreau's Walden, Pound's "Canto XIII," Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry, King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the essays of Baldwin, and Oppen's Of Being Numerous, Keelan's Utopic and Upton'sCivilian Histories bridge poesis and techne—the making and the doing, art and action, aesthetics and ethics. Few collections of poetry evoke such a compelling urge to live in generous mutuality, to recognize and love otherness in the self and the self in others.