Brenda Shaughnessy, The Octopus Museum, Knopf, 2019
I had hopes that this book would actually be about what it says on the tin: octopuses, different ones, in some sort of zoo or educational setting. But I also knew that I never get that sort of thing, that isn’t what other people write, a catalogue of octopuses, so I tempered my expectations, squashed them—
So I was very surprised to find that the table of contents for the book is titled Visitor’s Guide to the OM Exhibits and that it was explained how many “exhibitions spaces” the museum has (book sections) and that the sections of the book were titled phrases which contained “collection” or “gallery” or which sounded like art exhibit titles.
There is a prologue poem before the first exhibit—I am sure there is some museum analogue—called “Identity & Community (There is No ‘I’ in ‘Sea’)” and when I looked at it, I just told myself: read it like prose. Ignore the lines, the line breaks, just keep the sound going. This was a struggle but I did my best. An essay, a sort of monologue. Ignore the white space. It has no meaning. Squashed.
But I really identified with that first line, so much about an introvert’s desires. I was taken with the narrative voice, the choppy sentences, the little quirks of grammar. But to be honest, I have spent so much time telling myself to remember things by writing them down that the final verse-paragraph was a kick in the gut. I knew that feeling intimately.
What I didn’t know at the time was how skillfully Shaughnessy was using the background scene in this poem to set up the remainder of the book.
The poems in The Octopus Museum are about self, they feel confessional, they are political, they come at today’s concerns from an oblique angle—and they have a consistent narrator who actually has a narrative to share with us. Formally, they scrawl across the page, sentences and paragraphs, but they teem with anaphora and alliteration. Structurally we are reading to travel through the museum and the pieces of art are confessional poems that build up a narrative. Sometimes what carried me through the book is the poetic device and sometimes it is the world-building as it turns into action.
The ocean is in each poem, part of the narrator’s story, sometimes scenery, sometimes metaphor, but we do not have its implications clearly hinted at until page 14: the fourth poem begins “Before”, many of its sentences and verse-paragraphs begin “before”. It is not until the final verse-paragraph of the first section that it becomes a proper noun, a delineation of time.
In the penultimate section of the fourth poem, we meet the Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords and it becomes “clear that they were taking over.” The poem continues on, to make clear that this is not metaphor—not only metaphor—and then it becomes clearest that we—humanity—are the subjects in a museum for octopuses.
The remainder of the poem exhibits discuss the current world and the old, situation the speaker in it and the speaker’s everyday concerns, but also commenting on what threatens you and I today, such as the poem titled “Are Women People?”
Shaughnessy’s poems are science fiction the way Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was science fiction: slipped in so neatly it is unassailable and yet horrifying in the alternatives it shows us.
So this book is very much the cohesive, well-structured, integrated, interlocking artwork I was hoping for. But I don’t want to neglect the smallest pieces from which it is made.
From “Identity & Community (There is No ‘I’ in ‘Sea’):
I was a woman alone in the sea.
Don’t tell anybody, I tell myself.
Don’t try to remember this. Don’t document it.
Remember: write down to not-document it.
From “There Was No Before (Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles)”:
Before health insurance there was health, a pre-existing condition
From “Letters from the Elders”:
One word: plastics.
I won’t withhold everything I’ve learned. I’ll tell you plain. You will miss plastic.
I wish that, when people called in Cling Film instead of Saran Wrap, I’d have just let it go. It was a regional thing, not worth losing my long friendship with Mary over it.
Everything was plastic. We thought it was hygenic. We put it in our eyes so we could see better. We put plastic earbuds in our ears so we could listen ourselves out of any situation. We’d take food that was half-plastic in plastic containers, but it into another plastic container, heat it in an electric box of metal and plastic, and serve it to ourselves, guests, and families.
And from “New Time Change”:
You had your time you took your time after time you had your cake by the ocean and ate it too but now the tide has turned the times tables too when it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange #timesup and for old times’ sake we will remember you in our time.
Shaughnessy has an amazing ability to take common language and make it work harder to expose our common lives simultaneous with what is precious about them. She foregrounds the artifice—and thus unleashes their utmost potential—in phrases so repeated they could have lost all meaning and devolved simply to tone. Shaughnessy’s poetry uses common phrases to shake you out of a world devolved simply to tone, to rote, or to despair.
Soft Science, Franny Choi, Alice James Books, 2019
Soft Science by Franny Choi is a collection of poetry focused on the effect of technology and technology-in-media on contemporary lives. One of the threads running through the book is the comparison—and sometimes blurring—of cyborg and women as shaped things molded by the society that uses them. The poems respond vehemently and sometimes violently to Othering in many forms; this is part of what makes the book so powerful and so important. The book is organized according to multiple (imagined) versions of the Turing Test, allowing the speaker (a cyborg? a woman?) to self-express and also to refute the shapes and molds imposed on them. It is representative and slightly a summing-up that the first line of the second poem reads “// this is a test to determine if you have consciousness”.
But I’m writing this more as a personal response than a review; hopefully the above gives you an idea of whether you’d like to look at the poems for yourself. I picked up the book based on the cover and the title; I want to read poetry about science. The first poem is presented in the form of a table, yes, columns, rows, headers, lines separating each entry and boxing them in. I bought the book because I was completely flummoxed about how to read this as a poem and because I really thought this is the kind of thing I should be reading, all the themes presented are important to me—and when I scanned the table of contents I saw a poem titled “Everyone Knows That Line and Ogres and Onions, but Nobody Asks the Beast Why Undressing Makes Her Cry” and how could I not read that?
As I progressed through the poems, I learned that Choi has a wonderful ear for alliteration, consonance, and rhyme, and that she uses full and partial rhymes and homonyms to propel her poems forward. It’s wonderful. I loved how over and over the poems take commonplace phrases and play with them, rewriting them, a word at a time, to build into something completely new, or simply casting a different light on the meaning of the phrase by giving it different context. Many many of the poems sing exactly how I love poems to sing.
But I still have no idea how to read a poem without lineation but with slashes, such as each of the Turing Test poems, such as this bit from the second poem:
// why do you insist on lying
I’m an open book / you can rifle through my pages / undress me anywhere / you can read / anything you want / this is how it happened / i was made far away / & born here / after all the plants died / after the earth was covered in white / i was born among the stars / i was born in a basement / i was born miles beneath the ocean / i am part machine / part starfish / part citrus / part girl / part poltergeist / i rage & all you see / is broken glass / a chair sliding toward the window / now what’s so hard to believe / about that
By the end of the book, I had given up trying to assign meaning to lineation in the poems that used it. I confess, that made them much easier to read, less probing and confusion, more emphasis on the words, but I keep coming back to the fact that lineation is the main difference between poetry and prose and if it means something the reader can’t understand, then what good is it? One could argue that “understanding” and “having an effect” are different things, and I would agree, but I would have liked something for the effort I exerted.
So, I am very glad to have read Choi’s work and will look for more of it, but, personally, I am even more confused about how to read a poem.
Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle, Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, editors, Kelsay Books, 2018
Edited by Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle contains more poems in the form of a villanelle than probably any other book you’ve picked up: over 50 villanelles, covering topics ranging from gun laws to cats to bereavement.
A villanelle is a 19-line poem, composed of five tercets and a quatrain. What makes the form so difficult is that the first and third lines repeat—ideally without modification—alternatively as the final line of the second through four tercets. After the opening two lines of the quatrain, they come together as the closing couplet. Additionally, of course, the remaining lines follow a tight rhyme scheme. (Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a famous example of the form.)
In general, the form of the villanelle best supports a topic that lends itself to obsession. In Thomas’ case, it is grief. In Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” it is loss. While I personally wouldn’t put many of the topics covered in this anthology in the obsession category, an incredible poem could change my mind. But my main issue with the majority of the poems included in this anthology is that they feel as if the form is using them, rather than the other way around.
Specifically, the lines that repeat in the villanelle need to be supple enough to take on different shades of meaning each time they come around again. Unfortunately, I found many of these poems to include repetons that were too specific to change meaning with each tercet. Additionally, that specificity kept them from being able to magnify in meaning when the two repetons appear together again as the closing couplet of the poem. An example of such an inflexible repeton was “Ease my pain, play me part-songs for Delphinia” from Richard Roe’s “Requests for Torch Songs for Flowers Sent to the Villanelle Show”. Contrast that with Barbara Crooker’s “I will not falter, neither will I fail”, from her poem “Diagnosis: Autism”, which, while a bit repetitious itself at least allows for the lines around it to give it a different context as the poem proceeds.
Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle collects poems with a wide range of topics (so many cat poems!) but I feel it does a better job of showing off poetry’s versatility and applicability to contemporary life than providing the reader with villanelles which, as Dickinson said, raise off the top of your head.
Flyover Country, Austin Smith, Princeton University Press, 2018
I have spent some time thinking about which facet of the opening poem of Austin Smith’s Flyover Country is the one which kept me enthralled. But as I type I realize it is the combination, Smith’s skill as a writer: the narrative, with its hint of mystery and, like all narratives, the fuel for your desire to find out how it ends; the concrete nouns which pin you down like the red spots on the wings of the blackbirds mentioned; the imperative voice, which never allows for the idea that you might not want to listen and which makes urgent even the empty rocking chairs and whose certainty comes across like that of a close friend.
Flyover Country is divided into three sections, with poems about the rural interior of the U.S. bookending those taking place in Turin, Lourdes, or Anne Frank’s house. That does not mean the poems in the middle section exclude Smith’s home country; many are rooted there while simultaneously touching other times and places. In “Wounded Men Seldom Come Home to Die”, Smith writes
And this is why: when a wounded man comes home
To die he must come in through the summer kitchen
Clutching his wound like a bunch of kindling.
At the sight of him his mother faints. He catches her
Just in time and lays her down on the floor.
When his sister comes in from slopping hogs to find her
Brother at the table with his long legs kicked out
And their mother senseless on the linoleum, she sighs
But no matter where the poem takes place, or to whom, Smith’s voice sings. From the titular poem, “The lobes of the thunderhead / Flaring with lightning”. From “Country Things”: “while in a seam / Of gleaming honey in the oak that lighting / Cleaved the queen daintily eats her offspring”.
And his voice makes story. From “The Man Without Oxen”:
The harness you might have taken hold of
Last fall to still this shaking in your hands
Hangs on the barn wall, smelling faintly of lather.
Being a farmer, you know you didn’t sow them
Deep enough, and that it won’t be long now until
Winter rains bring their bones out of the hill.
In the end, I personally found Smith’s work to be so grounded in place and time that it felt universal. In “Some Haiku Found Scrawled in the Margins of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 1957”, he writes,
All the wicks
Curved the same way.
Terrance Hayes‘ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is one of the most moving books of poetry I have ever read—as well as one of the strongest examples of well-executed poetic device on (simultaneously) the syllable, word, line, sentence, poem and cross-poem narrative levels.
Having been so moved, I want to signal boost Hayes’ work. Perhaps you have heard about the book and just not gotten around to it. I encourage you to request it from your library or buy it at your local bookstore.
Hayes’ book is a sequence of sonnets, all with the same title as the book, each of which delves into and shares his experience as an African-American man living in the United States.
Because I value music in my poetry, I want to praise Hayes’ poetry. There is anaphora and assonance and slant rhyme after slant rhyme, building associations of meaning through sound. It is very powerful.
Over-aged, over grave, overlooked brother
Seeks adjoining variable female structure
Covered in chocolate, cinnamon, molasses,
Freckled, sandy or sunset colored flesh
While the above excerpt exemplifies Hayes’ facility with language, it also touches on his personal socio-political experience, although not as much as other poems in the collection do. (I really love how he reclaims the thorny issue of describing skin color in terms of food here.) Hayes can definitely be more blunt:
Glad someone shot deserved to be shot finally,
George Wallace. After you send your basket of balms
And berries for the girls the bomb buried in Birmingham,
After you add your palms to the psalms & palm covered
Caskets of the girls the bomb buried in Birmingham
And because I value narrative, I want to tell you that these sonnets, taken together, do tell a story, a dramatic monologue in pieces that you, the reader, need to put together to understand what’s being said. I do not mean that in a difficult way, as some contemporary poetry can be make you guess after meaning, but that as you continue through the sonnets, you’ll see characters return and themes—whole beautiful musical phrases—return, sometimes modified and sometimes not.
It is so difficult to pick out just a few instances to share to convince you that you should read these poems. There are so many amazing poems and they are so intertwined. One sonnet begins:
Because a law was passed that said there was no worth
To adjectives, companies began stringing superlatives
Before unchanged products…
A racehorse became a horse, a horse race
Became a race. The race was made of various adverbs
And adversaries. The relationship between future
And pasture was lost. Because a law was passed,
There was no worth to adjectives, there was no word
For the part of the pasture between departure & the past.
I feel like what Hayes has given us in this book is his heart. He has shared it without holding back, shared exactly what it means to be him, in this moment in time. It’s immensely powerful and reading it will change you.
Post Subject: A Fable, Oliver de la Paz University of Akron Press, 2014
I confess: I have no idea what the title of de la Paz’s book means. It makes me think of literary criticism, of which I am fairly ignorant, and mythology.
I confess I was also not expecting to open the book and to find every poem begins with the same two words: “Dear Empire”.
After further thought, though, I feel that my initial comments above may be a more accurate description than I had originally realized: the book critiques, in an attempt to dismantle, the myth of Empire and colonization, without forgetting that there is beauty in not only the world but the the people caught up in Empire.
In a series of nearly-epistolary poems, de la Paz builds an entire world: Empire, artist, jellyfish, and the history of the conquered peoples as the Empire expands. It begins as a catalog—the Empire’s meadows, parks, salt flats, skies, vistas—and before you can begin to ask who is speaking?, you have met the artist’s son and the artist, and ghosts and martyrs begin to populate what feels like a narrative, delivered in thin slices.
Which is not to say that the poetry is thin. The language is thick with evocative nouns. Each epistle is presented in three verse-paragraphs, giving each poem a sense of structure and relationship to the others. The repetition of the address and the use of the second person also have a cumulative effect as the book continues.
But I think what stayed with me the most were the jellyfish. I associate them with climate change and cluttering up the oceans, and in Post Subject: A Fable, they recur as one of very few ocean/water motifs. De la Paz gives them and their potential metaphor a lot of weight, by choosing to close the book with a focus on them, including these lines, which, on re-read, can never just be about mere polyps:
“And in the darkness of the sea, something blooms. Something blooms. Something unseen divides and rises.”
WHITEOUT, Jessica Goodfellow, University of Alaska Press, 2017
I write this to praise Jessica Goodfellow‘s poetry in WHITEOUT.
Poetry is the intertwining of form and content. And, I would argue, that in the best poems you cannot separate those things, that the form presents the content in a way that makes the content its most moving version of its self.
On the content level, Goodfellow expresses a nuanced grief, missing someone you barely know but whose absence torques the people around you, affecting how they interact with the world but also you. How the absence of an uncle translates into silence in her immediate family. Goodfellow’s main vehicle for her metaphors about grief, for this different sense of absence or missing, is the mountain Denali, its white faces, its cloud cover, the snow, the crevasse, the thunderous history of a glacier.
As for music, for form, Goodfellow presents a number of nonce forms, as well as sonnots of different varieties, all of which perfectly fit what they are trying to say. (There is at least one absolutely rigorous pantoum, as well.) Additionally, at the level of word and syllable, Goodfellow has rounded up so many words which fit her content but also contain the letters UNCLE in order; she uses them for poem titles so that she spells the absence of her uncle out of “uncle”: “Unconsoled”, “Uncalculable”, “Uncollected”, “Uncleaved”, “Unreachable”.
But this focus on single words is not limited to permutations of “uncle”. Goodfellow’s poems are full of text where everyword carries weight, where the words used are so strong they make articles and pronouns pale next to them—until you realize there are barely any of that type of word in the poem. In “The Relief Map Fails to Relieve”, Goodfellow writes
All maps view their subjects from above,
while a glacier glissandos always downward—
gouging as it goes, unzipping the underworld.
The void’s already hoisted its No Vacancy sign.
All those still corseted by torsos cannot cross,
cannot join the vacated in their icy cradles.
In addition to the high frequency of strong words, this example shows off Goodfellow’s amazing ear for consonance and assonance whose presence uplifts the meaning of the lines rather than skewing them like the grammar of a sentence rearranged to provide an end word with the proper rhyme.
But there is much more in this collection than I have touched on. There are the poems dissecting what it means to have no body recovered, in funeral, in grief, in how the living interact with the world. I especially enjoyed how, in “Heresy”, Goodfellow offers a different relation for body and soul, including
Imagine the body as irritant, a grain of sand inside
an oyster that conjures in response a cosmic pearl.
Let the soul be the glow-in-the-dark dark.
You who hate this proposal must never
have lost somebody whose body was never
recovered. You want the body as cage
that releases, finally, the soul…
…You see the soul as map
of the body’s limited terrain; I see the body
as map of the measureless parish of soul.
There are poems about what grief does to a family, about the role of pictures, painted and photographed, in that doing. In every poem, there is a mountain, especially “The Fold”, which Goodfellow ends thusly:
it is a matter
of which side you are on,
and if you have no body—
you are on neither side.
You are the fold,
the stylus of silence
on which hinges both
our Cartesian cathedral
and the vertex of our vortex.
Chasm and scaffold,
cornice and crevasse,
the steep pitch of life
and its inverse, its obverse.
the edge. Welcome
to our fold.
The alliteration, the punning—or the use of all possible connotations of a word, together—the transition between words closely-tied by sound and letters, all of which is wielded to say something about life. This is Goodfellow’s amazing artistry.
The epigraph to Maura Dahvana Headley‘s The Mere Wife is a translation of “The Wife’s Lament” by Ann Stanford. It’s bold and grammar-inverted in a way that makes grief obvious. I immediately wanted to read the remainder; I immediately wanted to read more of Stanford’s poems if this was what her translations looked like. Stanford’s last volume, Holding Our Own, was selected by two of her students and each wrote an introduction to it. One was emotional, the other was distanced; both discussed why, although patronized by May Swenson, Stanford’s work was not collected in the big women poet anthologies of the late 20th century: No More Masks! and The Rising Tide.
I have long been a fan of Abbie Huston Evans‘ poetry but only recently did I get a copy of Carl Little’s essay “The Life and Poetry of Abbie Huston Evans”. It was occasioned by her death, although it did discuss her antecedents, genetic and poetic, spent some time quoting her poetry and raving about said quotes, and listing other essays which discussed why Evans’ work did not appear in No More Masks! or The Rising Tide even though a poet as famous as Edna St. Vincent Millay introduced her first volume.
In both cases, the reason listed was political. Neither Evans nor Stanford wrote political or political-icizable poetry. Although, if one needs some help #resisting at the moment, I would point you to Stanford’s “The Weathercock”. And if you need music to convince people the earth—rocks, plants, weeds, trees—around them are worth valuing and working to save, I could pelt you with poems by Evans which do just that.
A lot of feminist criticism talks about The Canon, what authors are passed down, and who is excluded. And here I find that not even May Swenson, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, unlikely to go forgotten anytime soon, can keep a poet’s work in the barrel of history. Instead, I believe, we are required to exhume the beauty we need and hand it down to others, handful at a time. I hope that you have a moment for Stanford or for Evans. And I hope that when you do, you too find something you were looking for.
“To E.D. in July”
by Abbie Huston Evans
(copied from Evans’ Collected Poems p. 93)
Emily, lie you below
And I above, this morning,
While this same earth you used to know
Stabs deep and gives no warning?
It passes me how it can be
That I instead am seeing
Light loved by you implicitly
While you resign your being.
Tell me truth, did you find heaven
And your old neighbor, God?
Or is it nothingness, not even
A sleep, beneath the sod?
Did your relentless wish create
What is from what could be;
Or found you one grim predicate
Wherewith nouns must agree?
Listen: the tide is out again;
The rock-weed lies out hissing.
I could weep in the world of men
To think what you are missing.
To your low ear I bring in news
Gathered this same day, giving
A pocketful from which to choose
Fresh from the land of the living.
The sun finds garnets on this ledge
The tide’s bare hand is slapping;
And where the grass fails at the edge
A poplar bush stands clapping.
Woodpecker drums his hollow log,
Pond-lillies open slow,
Shell-pink upon the cranberry bog
Has just begun to show.
This morning early, Emily,
I saw a crane go wading
About the glassed cove to the knee,
The ripples round him braiding;
The cove out of the mist pulled free
As radiant as a bridge,
But smokiness blew in from sea
With the turning of the tide.
Know kittens still lap creamy milk,
Know mice still gnaw the rind,
And like great lengths of waving silk
Hay-fields blow out behind;
Barn-swallows scissor down and up
With tea-stained vests (you know!),
And hawkweed crowds on buttercup,
And elderberries blow.
—Here, take them, Emily, they hurt
In telling; can you bear
To hear of elderberries, skirt
The coasts of sun and air?
Know all that hurt you once hurts still.
Need any tell you now
Night brings the moon, dawn finds the hill?
Want you such hurting now?