scroll below for reviews of Cynthia Hogue's Revenance and William Wright's Tree Heresies
Laura Fargas, An Animal of the Sixth Day
Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 1996. 79 pp.
Reviewed by Rebecca Varley-Winter
no. I want to be this, bespattered with the falling,
charged with the glory and retained grace
of the destructible world. I want to be
an animal of the sixth day. ("An Animal of the Sixth Day")
Laura Fargas' An Animal of the Sixth Day, as her title poem suggests, is partly concerned with faith, but always as an aspect of tangible experience; the visions she presents are generous and resonant to me as a non-religious reader. She opens the collection with "Timshel," a poem structured as a list of permissions:
You may eat the fruit in wonderment at its cleanly
interior, and rub its juice deeply into the skin
of your hands. From the sassafras,
you may have one of each of the three shapes of leaf,
and in different colors, too. Listen
how copiously the world is raining these permissions,
and how wisely the grass is drinking them down.
Timshel is a Hebrew word, the meaning of which is disputed. It either means "you may, or you may not" or "you will rule," but was translated as "Thou shalt" in the King James Bible. It is also the last word that God says to Cain before the murder of Abel. By revolving her poem around "You may," Fargas makes nuanced distinction between a religion of authority and a religion of autonomy, between commanding and choosing. Her poem emerges from this dissonance, professing hopeful mystification:
I may say the universe is big and full of both fullness and
starry voids, and no one has yet triangulated You.
But thank you anyway, I may pray. I may spend
all of tomorrow trying to rehang a leaf.
I may shiver amid the stripes of rain
like a wet marmot in a zoo.
Immersed in nature, Fargas' work is reminiscent of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," but her tone is more questioning. The wet marmot at the end of "Timshel" specifically and powerfully reminds me of a passage from the memoirs of Walter Benjamin, in which he recounts his childhood fascination with an otter in Berlin's Zoological Garden. Benjamin's otter disdains the rock grotto that has been built for shelter, preferring to live in the water:
"And so time and again I would remain, endlessly waiting, before those black and impenetrable depths, in order somewhere to catch sight of the otter. [...] I could easily have passed long, sweet days there, my forehead pressed up against the iron bars of its cage, without ever getting enough of the sight of the creature. [...] the long, sweet day was never longer, never sweeter, than when a fine-or-thick-toothed drizzle slowly combed the animal for hours and minutes. Docile as a young maiden, it bowed its head under this gray comb. And I looked on insatiably then. I waited. Not until it stopped raining, but until it came down in sheets, ever more abundantly. [...] In a good rain, I was securely hidden away."
(Berlin Childhood Around 1900, trans. by Howard Eiland, 2006)
The kind of faith Laura Fargas professes in "Timshel" seems to me to have something in common with Walter Benjamin's yearning for this otter-god, which, instead of inhabiting its delegated temple, lives elusively in dark water. Its appearance is rare, and his affinity with it mysterious. Fargas is similarly interested in vulnerability, imperfection, uncertainty, and longing. In "Peris," she writes of decay: "even breaking, the body / is what I want, its teeth, its crooked shadows." In "Living In Is," she writes of physical presence via the smell that a skunk leaves behind it:
They trundle their elegant fur
through the shrubs and do not wish to be seen
or touched. [...]
Fargas' poetry is deeply beautiful, in an earned and rigorous way. "Word Up" is an apology for the craftedness of writing, acknowledging the intrusion of the poet's gaze, "The cannibal nature of my looking." She avoids absolute authority. In "Out Of Time," she cautions: "I cannot say / which one leaf will come down next. / [...] there is no end to the soft falling." She references Buddhism as well as the Bible; her poem 'Transmission' is set in a Zen monastery. She engages, intuitively and questingly, with several belief systems, without being overwhelmed by any of them. With titles like "Wave & Particle" and "Natural Selection," several of her poems are also informed by biology, mathematics and physics. In her poetics, "nature," "God" and "the universe" are manifestations of the same thing, so all learning becomes a kind of theology.
In "The Going Poem," she writes of Leonardo da Vinci:
Insatiable, he opened
a lion, and he looked into its blackness
In this careful, close observation, da Vinci's experiment and Fargas' poetic impulse have the same insatiable goal, asking "what is that it," "What the lioness smells, amber in tall amber grass, / empty-bellied":
[...] I can tell I don't want to leave it, and want
it not to leave me. Cold sky, cold cabin slowly warming.
Although Fargas' work comforts, it does so through interrogating, not offering platitudes. Occasionally a poem flicks out a sharp blade: "wisdom comes dripping / like saline in a cancer ward." Ouch.
An Animal of the Sixth Day is nearly twenty years old -- it was published in 1996 -- but Fargas' poems feel like freshly cut fruit. With a steady, bright, clear-eyed gaze, this is one of the most vivid collections that I have read by any living poet.
Rebecca VarleyWinter is a writer and English Literature academic, whose poetry has appeared most recently in Poems In Which. She is currently Poetry Reviews Editor at Sabotage Reviews, and also has articles and reviews published and/or forthcoming in Literary Imagination, PN Review and Glasgow Review of Books.
Cynthia Hogue. Revenance
Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2014. 112 pp.
Reviewed by Alice Allen
The word revenance suggests a return from the dead. In Cynthia Hogue's eighth book of poems, which encompasses landscape, memory, loss and grief, this idea of return resonates throughout and threads together what is, at 81 pages of poetry, a substantial collection.
The book is helpfully divided into five parts and several of the poems in the first section seem concerned with the difficulty of accessing the natural world. In the poem "In New Hampshire Woods," the speaker strains to see an owl but finds her perception unreliable and confused. A sensorial slippage has occurred. Time passes "marked / in sound that seemed misheard." The speaker "thinks a growl" as she hears a car in the distance.
Like a bird landing on a branch, we enter the poem off kilter and mid-sentence:
That an owl hooted.
No glimpse of wing
The senses are inadequate, unable to produce the actual owl and nature seems to be a code which our senses and language cannot decipher but, despite this, the poem creates a deep and pleasing sense of 'owlness'. The owl's hoot and the sound of its name is echoed throughout the language of the poem which is rich in o's:
More hoots, solo and sonorous.
They're speaking in tones
that differ as chords
from words, you said.
By the end of the poem, language, sound, time and bird all seem to take off together, forming a solution of sorts:
minutes slipped intransigently past us
in a rising flitter of syllable.
Ultimately, the natural world is experienced via an understanding of its sonic properties. Hogue's efforts to hear the non-human world work in parallel with an analysis of how language works. In "Spirit Says (2)" the sonic resonance and physical shape of words are celebrated:
How words can work at all
Right now writes words:
say, bone or round,
the tone or sound
which shifts the note that's struck
long "o" for grief
What follows in the poem is a free and open examination of language, where even falsehoods "carry forth a tenor which re-/sonates air":
That next-to-ness that makes new
formed: all fixity vanishing
We talk around the words
or through them
That we lie develops
our ability to read between
This semantic flexibility makes us aware of what language can achieve by chance, by interpreting the accidental chimes of sound and meaning of words placed together, as in this simple stanza in "The Cayadutta Creek Suite":
The earth as site.
Earth in our sights
Similarly, despite its familiarity, the title of the collection doesn't appear to be a dictionary-defined word, but an invention that summons up ideas not just of return but also of reverence and resonance. This is poetry that encourages us to glean meaning from the sounds and spaces around a word, the anagrammatic, the chance reverberations at the end of an unfinished sentence.
The idea of poetry crafted from fragments and chance is fundamental to the second section of the book, a prose piece and sequence of poems based on the author's piecemeal notes of an interview with the Russian Samizdat poet, Olga Sedakova. Samizdat was the system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR, which kept forbidden writing alive. Of her sheaf of barely intelligible interview notes Hogue writes:
I begin to excavate the thing itself, uncovering its
shards of language, which I unearth, recompose, because I
want the reconstructed piece to confirm, by the very fact of its existence,
that something that is no more once took place, bodied forth, returning
like a revenant: not whole, but changed. Struck by an absence at once
partial and absolute.
The result of this excavation is rich and many-layered, creating something new out of something that was lost. Revenance has become a metaphor for the creative process itself. The five poems appear as pieces in a broken chain but they are also fluent and taut with meaning, and tantalisingly brief; I loved this section so much I wanted it to continue for much longer.
Hogue seems particularly drawn to fragments and her poetry has the scope and interplay of a collage. "The Cayadutta Creek Suite" charts the social, economic and environmental history of a once polluted tributary in New York State via personal memory and extracts from articles which are interwoven with italicized lists of plant names and repeated phrases. Material from different sources is layered together in a form that underscores the complexities of the story. Although the polluted creek was eventually brought back to life when the mills closed, severe economic hardship resulted for a population left without work. The poem ends without offering any answers:
My thoughts were stones
standing out of their depth.
That I might now
see through the waters of
the Cayadutta, smell the burdock,
mullein and sweet grass along
its banks means that there are else-
wheres, other plants, and no one atones.
The refusal to offer up easy answers is foreshadowed by Hogue's preoccupation with signs, pictographs, marks on rice paper, the semiotics of artefact. Two poems, The Scroll and Outside of London (1981) have a bold line at the end of the poem with some text in the manner of a footnote underneath, which instead of clarification offer just a phrase or an unfinished fragment of thought. In both poems the footnotes leave us hanging on the tip of a hyphen.
The same device is used at the close of Care Giving: an Elegy to prevent any sense of comfort or resolution. Loss and grief is kept alive by the form rather than being modulated and consoled by it, as would a more traditional elegy:
Last night you startled at a sound rose from deep sleep expectant
to the empty air. She awakened too not straining at all to hear something, or
Hogue's poetry is elegiac writing for an ailing world, invoking through its dynamic and challenging form the force and paradox of language, memory and the imagination to summon up a miracle, an act of revenance, while at the same time being mournfully alive to the impossibility of any such consolation.
Alice Allen has an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan, Wales. She is a poetry reviewer for the website Sabotage.
William Wright. Tree Heresies
Macon: Mercer University Press, 2015. 65 pp.
Reviewed by Katherine Watkins
Devoted readers of contemporary poetry have come to regard William Wright as a preeminent voice of the American South. Inspired though he is by traditional Southern motifs--landscape, lore, wilderness, and the grotesque--a more telling aspect of Wright's work is its transcendence, the ease with which it moves between, and at times conflates, the local and the universal. Perhaps nowhere is this quality more evident than in the poems that comprise his eighth collection, the rich, mesmerizing, and finely crafted Tree Heresies.
Consider, for example, the eerily sumptuous "Barn Gothic," which moves with increasing focus through a moonlit tour of a warped and crumbling barn. "Red as a cardinal," the speaker explains, "it leans ruined in winter's gray field, / form falling against sycamore, / its older, wiser wife." From there, readers encounter foxes whose "green eyes haunt the nearby mountain woods" and black widows who "float, wait / in corners to gore what passes." Reality, like the structure itself, becomes tenuous when the speaker imagines the barn as it once may have been, "horses pitched and leaned / into chaff / awaiting work, / this room still alive in smells of oil, dung, / and cedar-heart." Considered alone for their rich, evocative detail, aural texture, and formal integrity, these lines satisfy and enthrall. But there is more at work beneath the surface.
The poem's figurative level emerges clearly in the second section. The speaker observes, "Moonflower / grips, twines / the rusted scythe and the burled / yawn of the caved-in door: Earth / sculpts without consent." With these lines, the poem's scope expands. No longer are we asked to consider the exclusive scene at hand, but rather how like the moths and stars of the poem's concluding image, "all pure, radiant, dying," the beauty of these elements derives from their transitory nature, each withered relic bearing the mark of time, and the inevitable, nonconsensual force of death and decay.
The collection is defined by such moments of confluence, like when the attic door of a home collapses in the poem "Attic and Image," confronting the startled resident with a darker, hidden reality. The speaker explains, "we looked up into that rectangular dark and smelled / the musk of years weep down into the lit spaces / where we walk and speak and sleep and eat." These lines establish an important dichotomy that is central to the poem's thrust: the realm of the living, which is bright and busy, and the "dull heaven" of the attic, which, save for the traces of accidental visitors--a "wayward cowbird" and a "throng of larvae"--is still, shadowy, and quiet. A common theme explored throughout the collection is the tension that is produced when these symbolic realms collide. It is inevitable that death, the ever-present, silent observer, will intervene and conquer. Beings who dwell in "lit spaces" can choose to ignore this fact, but when the attic door comes crashing down, there is no more room for denial.
As "Attic and Image" continues, the speaker thinks back to when the cowbird "happened, one / frigid December, into a darkness not its own," and imagines how the trapped creature must have died, its attempts at escape culminating in a "a bird-shaped stamp / of dust on the curved sill of the attic window." He pictures its long-wasted corpse, "blasted by the sun and haunted by stars for decades," and confesses that he cannot rid his mind of the image. The reason for his fixation is not explicitly conveyed, but one can speculate. The attic door collapses, revealing, as it were, an open tomb. The speaker, like his foil, the displaced bird, is forced into confrontation with the disturbing facts of mortality. Again, as in "Barn Gothic," we find ourselves in a world that "sculpts without consent."
Though the inevitability of death and decay is a recurrent theme in Tree Heresies, the tone of the collection is anything but morbid. Wright pursues these subjects with awe and fascination, celebrating nature's exquisite beauty in spite of its chaos and violence. The best distillation of this spirit occurs in the closing stanzas of the poem "Hour":
and if I admit the world is
kind, even as it murders
my cells and days,
even as it kills, sculpts my joys
into a hidden box of bone,
dust and worm,
my heart blooms orchard-deep
to know this earth has made for me
an hour of seasons, seeds,
and sentience, for which I am
nun, priest, imam: married
to all it withholds.
A single human life--its achievements, joys and sorrows--can appear crushingly insignificant on a universal scale. But in the poem "Hour," the speaker's acknowledgement of his own mortal transience does not result in despondency; it liberates him. He is free to savor every thought, feeling, and impression, and to claim as precious what might otherwise be deemed expendable. Life may be, as Hobbes concluded, "nasty, brutish, and short," and while there is no attempt in Tree Heresies to disguise such harsh realities, Wright's poetry's is nothing if not a celebration of the sacred in our brief and fragile existence.
As a collection, Tree Heresies is astonishing for its versatility. Wright firmly situates himself within the Southern milieu while at the same time demonstrating just how diverse and boundless Southern writing can be. The terror, strangeness, and beauty of the natural world have rarely been pursued with more imagination, skill, originality, or grace. As an educator, I am thrilled to share these poems with students in my literature classes. They are rich and intricate while remaining clear, accessible, and exciting to read. Serious readers of contemporary poetry who have not yet familiarized themselves with the work of William Wright would be well advised to do so. Tree Heresies is a book that will not disappoint.
Katherine Watkins is a high school English and creative writing teacher from Memphis, Tennessee. She earned a Bachelor's degree in English from Rhodes College before moving to Scotland where she earned a Master's degree in Modernist poetry from the University of Edinburgh.