Book Review

Wonder, Wisdom, Wit and Whim

In the Lateness of the World[1] is Carolyn Forché’s first collection of poems in seventeen years. Over the past four decades, Forché’s work has grown to exemplify what she describes as “poetry of witness.” In her 1993 anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Forché argued against “personal” or “political” aims for poems, striving instead to present poets who persisted in writing under the most extreme social duress in conditions of war, exile and imprisonment.

This new collection continues Forché’s journey through histories both personal and political. Working in many modes (elegy, lament, lists, landscapes, prose pieces and various stanza patterns), Forché creates a sense of end times, of a speaker sifting through various bewildering events. In the poem “Toward the End,” she begins in the aftermath:

In this archipelago of thought a fog descends, horns of ships to unseen
ships, a year
passing overhead, the cry of a year not knowing where, someone standing
in the aftermath

but reaches at the end, a moment of illumination where

like the light at the bottom of a well opening in iced air

where you have gone under and come back, light, no longer tethered
to your own past, and were it not for the weather of trance, of haze and
murk, you could see

everything at once: all the islands, every moment you have lived or place
you have been,
without confusion or bafflement, and you would be one person. You would
be one person again.

Against this urge toward wholeness, a pervasive sense of loss and uncertainty permeates the poems in this collection. The reader encounters lost suitcases, lost poems, imaginary maps, logs of ghost ships, exiles, crossings, and forced migrations, but the poet never ceases the work of remembering—“all earth a quarry, all life a labor, stone-faced, stone-drunk / with hope that this assemblage of rubble, taken together, would become / a shrine or holy place.” The overall mood of this collection is one of melancholy rendered in startling images. In the poem “Report from an Island,” we read

In the sea, they say, there is an island made of bottles and other trash.
Plastic bags become clouds and the air a place for opportunistic birds.

On this island,

Wind has lofted the water into a distant city, according to news reports:
most of that city submerged now, with fish in the streets.

Into this ecological disaster, Forché weaves other catastrophes: earthquakes, plane crashes, all exacting a human toll on a “plastic island that must from space appear to be a palace.”

Forché’s ability to paint pictures with words enriches her deeply oneiric “thought-scapes,” for lack of a better word, and is also evident in her more intimate poems as in “Early Life”—

Over the field crawled squash vine and blossom until a row of berry
canes stood in a cloud of bees, and lettuces opened in watery light.

When Anna was with us, pillows of bread rose in bowls and soup
boiled the windows blind . . .

In the poem “Passage,” which describes the moment a soul passes from this state to the next, there would be “the curtain flared / as a girl’s skirt in wind / there would be a pitcher / of water on the night table— / some kind of game the children / would be playing would be heard / like a call from tree to tree / during apple harvest.”

In the Lateness of the World is a relatively short collection comprising only 77 poems, but I suspect that many readers will want to revisit these poems for their clarity and their insistence on our responsibility to the natural world, to the past and to each other. In a deeply moving poem titled “The Boatman,” Forché tells the news story of thirty-one Syrian refugees caught trying to flee to the sea or to Europe, neither a promising alternative. We can’t, Forché seems to be saying, write our way past our history, but perhaps, with an unflinching moral gaze, poems can help to see us through:

You tell me you are a poet. If so, our destination is the same.
I find myself now the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world.
I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.

Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. An American Sunrise,[2] her eighth collection of poems, reclaims the ancestral history and revisits the homeland from which her people were uprooted as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In a brief prose preface, Harjo not only explains the effect of the Act on tribal history, she makes an overt connection between the “many trails of tears” of the past and the current political situation: “The indigenous peoples who are making their way up from the southern hemisphere are a continuation of the Trail of Tears.” The past, she reminds us, must be honestly acknowledged and remembered, celebrated and mourned; only by doing so can our understanding be enlarged. As she writes in “Break My Heart,” the opening poem in the collection,

Someone is always leaving
By exile, death, or heartbreak.

The heart is a fist.
It pockets prayer or holds rage.

It’s a timekeeper.
Music maker, or backstreet truth teller.

An American Sunrise is Harjo’s record of that painful history of leaving and the power of prayer and ritual to contain both heartbreak and healing. The collection includes poems, prose vignettes and oral histories that alternate between modes ranging from fact and description to lament, elegy and incantation. Harjo’s form and language emphasize the power of ritual and honor the tribal customs of song and story (“We follow the DNA spiral of stories”)—vessels of grief and celebration as in “The Story Wheel”—

I leave you to your ceremony of grieving
Which is also of celebration
Given when an honored humble one
Leaves behind a trail of happiness
In the dark of human tribulation.

Harjo is an accomplished musician (to hear her read her poems while she accompanies herself on the saxophone is a remarkable experience), and that musical sensibility is woven throughout An American Sunrise. In a charming fable titled “Rabbit Invents the Saxophone,” she writes:

Musicians are musicians, no trick will get by.
You either have it, or want it
Nothing else will fly.

Harjo’s collection emphasizes poetry as something sacred and communal—ancestral wisdom, tribal history and ritual feature prominently. But there is also room for the personal, as Harjo writes a poem praising “My Man’s Feet,” which makes its way from roots to birth, through history and the present family life:

My man’s feet are the sure step of a father
Looking after his sons, his daughters
For when he laughs he opens all the doors of our hearts
Even as he forgets to shut them as he leaves

And when he grieves for those he loves
He carves out valleys wide enough to hold everyone’s tears
With his feet, these feet
My man’s widely humble, ever steady, beautiful brown feet.

Similarly, she draws the reader intimately into an elegy for her mother. “Washing My Mother’s Body” enacts in poetry what could not take place in life. The details and gestures recounted in this tender and loving poem culminate in a personal history wherein the mother’s body becomes the intersection of humanity and history, joy and suffering, resilience and remembrance:

The story is all there, in her body, as I wash her to prepare her
to be let down into earth, and return all stories to the earth.

For Harjo, life is a song cycle, and it is music that underlies the story. In “How to Write A Poem in a Time of War,” she urges us to sing our way home:

If we begin here, none of us will make it to the end
Of the poem.

Someone has to make it out alive, sang a grandfather

to his grandson, his granddaughter,

as he blew his most powerful song into the hearts of the children.

Arias,[3] Sharon Olds’s thirteenth collection in four decades, revisits many of the themes she is known (and beloved) for: sex, loss, family, current events and the imperative for engagement. The poems in this hefty book widen the angle of her lens as she bears witness and calls attention to the harms being done to the whole human family. Braiding the political and personal, she continues to explore the traumas and joys of her own past with compassion and new understanding. In registers that range from the vulnerable to the fierce, these poems challenge, romp, march, lull, soothe and mourn to a distinctly Olds-ian music.

The first of the book’s five sections includes poems about Trayvon Martin and Etan Patz, the Twin Towers, the “corporal chastisement of children,” global warming, immigration, white privilege—a catalogue of the issues of our day. More than mere catalogue, however, this first section seems intended as a directional signal from the collection’s moral compass as well as—with hat tip to Walt Whitman—Old’s Song of Herself. “Looking South Where the Towers Had Been,” she acknowledges the limitations of her own privileged experience:

if you see me starting to talk about
something I know nothing about,
like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,
step between me and language. This morning,
I am seeing it more clearly, that song
can be harmful, in its ignorance
which does not know itself as ignorance.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I am singing, I am singing against myself, as if
rushing toward someone my song might be approaching,
to shield them from it.

The second section, the eponymous Arias, includes 38 poems arranged in alphabetical order. Borrowing from the operatic definition of an aria as a solo part sung with accompaniment, Olds’s arias are “sung” by a first person speaker who provides her own accompaniment in words, images and allusions. The Arias are rife with portmanteau words, puns, onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, nursery rhymes, patriotic songs, nature sounds and refrains. “Immigration Aria,” for example, interweaves phrases from Emma Lazarus’ “Colossus” with family history:

My mother’s people
came here yearning to sing to their God,
to breathe free, men and women
attacked by their landlords, who called them wretched
refuse, teeming with vermin. They’d pushed off from that
shore, homeless on the ocean, through calm
and tempest—sometimes in sight of a fountain
tossed up out of the brow of a fish—until
they come to these low hills which lift up from a
land where we have set a lamp
with a golden torch, to remind us, here
at the door: entering through it is a promise
to leave it open behind us.

Like the poems in Odes, Sharon Olds’s 2016 collection, some of the Arias frankly address intimate parts of the body (“Anal Aria,” “Cervix Aria,” “Gliss Aria,” “Tailbone Aria”). Still others address sexual experiences (“Bonnard Aria”), motherhood (“Fear of Motherhood Aria,” “Object Permanence Aria”) and the ordinary milestones of life. Many of the poems are located in a specific place: California, Nevada, the Bay Area and Vermont. A significant number of the Arias begin with the word “When,” which Olds uses as a form of verbal time signature. In “Scansion Aria,” Olds revisits the repeated beatings she suffered as a child:

if I want to know a poem, Biblically,
respiratorily, cardio-
vascularly, I chart the rhythms
of its lines—and I no longer fear that beat
interests me so deeply because I was a
child beaten to the 4/4 beat
of the hymns. I love scansion because it is related
to dansion—it gets to know the action
of the poem in order to know its passion.

Nothing can right the wrongs of the past, but poetry and music can help to re-envision and redeem. In the deeply compassionate “Hospice-Bed Song,” the opening poem of the book’s penultimate three-part section of elegies, Olds creates a lullaby for her dying mother, not just of her own words but those of Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree,”

Her face became smoother and smoother, for
peace comes dropping slow,
dropping from the veils of the morning,
to where the cricket sings
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
she was there, at last, in the pure
matter of the world, in the deep heart’s core.

These elegies for mother, father, stepmother, friends and fellow poets Ruth Stone, Galway Kinnell, Stanley Kunitz and Tory Dent memorialize both the family of origin and the family of choice—the community—that Olds has created for herself. The final section of the book looks not to the past but toward her children and hope for the future:

Through her children, her life would continue,
and maybe, if we do not destroy
the earth, it too might continue, the whole
life of the human, in Bahia Sur,
and Mérida, and Islas del Mujeres. [sic]

Mary Ruefle’s twelfth collection, Dunce,[4] is characterized by her trademark humor, unexpected connections and disarmingly quirky diction. Her poems often feel like they originate in stand-up comedy, wander through outlandish situations only to arrive at a surprisingly poignant conclusion. Unlike her previous collection, My Private Property (2017), which consisted of short prose pieces, Dunce is a collection of sixty-four poems arranged continuously with no section breaks. The collection opens with an epigraph from Antonio Machado:

Last night as I lay sleeping I dreamt

O, marvelous error—
That there was a beehive here inside my heart

And the golden bees were making white combs
And sweet honey from all my failures.

In poem after poem, Ruefle’s speaker struggles with the fragility of life, the certainty of death and a pervasive sense of unknowing. The end is certain, but the particulars are blurry, as in “General Direction”—

I am walking in the general direction
of things. I plan to hang a handbill
announcing I was nothing
and shall be nothing again.

In the poem “Earthly Failure,” Ruefle writes:

The copier grew tired of everything,
made a terrible sick sound
and died.

I told my friends the poem was
blurry because the copier wept
while reading it.

That poem ruined the world,
it made everyone shy.

Now I’ve ruined the poem,
there’s nothing left but a knight
sticking his sword
in a snail.

And in “The Cake,” despite chastisements (“And the soul of my mother spake, saying/You should have spoken sooner. / I heard my father’s soul say / You should have listened to me,”), the speaker is wheeled to the window and witnesses a tender scene—

I saw the mist over the grass
of all words, my mistakes
carefully wrapped in a blanket and sung to.

“There are so many years to fail,” she writes, “that to fail them all, one by one, / would give me a double life / and I took it” (“Crackerbell”). Thus does the beehive in Ruefle’s heart make honey from failure.

Ruefle’s poems achieve their sentient effects without relying on expressions of deep emotion. Instead she threads feeling through images and silence. Like the poet Georg Trakl, whom she quotes in the poem “The Eventualist,” she too allows images to speak for her. Tears and rain appear regularly in many of the poems, particularly regarding the death of the mother, but also in general: “this is sad, like Stonehenge in the rain.” The pins in the mother’s mouth are sometimes helpful and sometimes sharp and piercing. A snail is a signifier of a solitary, contained existence (“Super Bowl”); leaves blown about seem to be having fun as a speaker watches, not part of their play, a fake corpse in “Halloween” reminds the poet of the death of the mother, something she carries with her always: “and at the thought of my mother / there was a corpse in me”—a chilling image for the weight of grief.

Spare as they are emotionally, the poems in Dunce are like a Christmas stocking stuffed with gifts from a poet deeply enamored of the play and texture of language. Full of chiasmus, reversals, rhyme, leaps of diction and surprising linguistic twists, Ruefle’s poems are also slyly allusive (Stevens, Dickinson, Wordsworth and Berryman, among others) and eclectic in their references: Braque, Ruritanian romances, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Flaubert. The poem “Tuna and a Day” recalls nineteenth-century children’s verse, whereas “Little Stream” seems indebted in its list form to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Titles, whether spare and demotic, fanciful or long, are integral to her poems’ intentions. A reader could certainly pick up this collection and simply run with it, but these manifest pleasures also invite re-reading and lingering and re-discovery.

As a collection, Dunce is, paradoxically, wide-eyed and wry; deeply elegiac and meditative. Despite her occasionally absurdist surfaces and playful approaches, Ruefle is engaged in a serious exploration of the “massive arrays of adulthood.” From deciding to have breakfast, her attention sets out “in a cheerful mood on a memorable / expedition to the sink.” This ostensibly minor act suddenly takes off in lyric flight, which concludes:

All the rivers of the world
convene in me. They rush
over my hands, they enter
my mouth, they cover my face.
I am compelled to drink my own
tears, as you too will be
when you wake.

We have awakened to a world more covered in tears today. When I began to read through my box of books, a province far away in China was suffering through a new and deadly pathogen. Now it is on our national doorstep as we quarantine and learn to live with safer ways of interacting and working. Fortunately, we have these poems to sustain us with wonder, wisdom, wit and whim.
[1] IN THE LATENESS OF THE WORLD, by Carolyn Forché. Penguin Press. $24.00.

[2] AN AMERICAN SUNRISE, by Joy Harjo. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95.

[3] ARIAS, by Sharon Olds. Alfred A. Knopf. $16.95.

[4] DUNCE, by Mary Ruefle. Wave Books. $25.00.