Book Review

“if you want to make it more complicated, I agree”

The first poem in Renia White’s accomplished first collection[1] reminded me of one attributed to Robert Burns, “The Selkirk Grace”:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be Thankit!

Burns knew hardship, poverty, and the disenfranchisement of failure, like other Scots of his time, the post-Culloden eighteenth century, and wrote one poem, “The Slave’s Lament,” about a runaway slave. Still, it is striking to hear the echo of “The Selkirk Grace” in the last verses of White’s poem “hearsay.” Having noted the irony of enduring the Middle Passage only to experience entrapment in the legal system, she declares, “I can’t let you have my life, / not like that your honor”:

some people get to want and need
and be met in it. some just the mouth
just the teeth

some eat and they say
“why all the hunger?”

Both Burns’s poem and White’s acknowledge unacknowledged privilege. When a meal is set before you, there may be conditions beyond your control that hinder partaking. Some, as Renia White reminds us, “get to want and need,” as if appetite itself were a privilege of experience.

Many of White’s poems have to do with privilege, luck, and what to do with them when they come your way. And how to live if they don’t. These are intellectually complex poems, and they subtly echo classics of the tradition. She talks back to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” in the first line of “meanwhile”:

the girl at the end of the road you aren’t taking is still there

Perhaps it is too easy to hear the echo deliberately created here, but the ending of the poem, like others, confronts racial injustice and sexual exploitation:

/Black girl\ something about your existence
proves they can’t say it didn’t happen because
how else did you get here?

But the choice to act, to take responsibility for the decision others may have made for you goes beyond Frost’s wistful ambivalence about where he has arrived:

a girl throws herself down the fickle steps of a man’s desire
and doesn’t come back up until someone goes to get her

White’s poems are as political and aware as any these days, but they do not rant or hector or self-congratulate. They signify a consciousness that is attuned to all levels of experience. Irony may be dismissed, but not when it keeps turning like a lighthouse lamp, illuminating every corner it discovers and creates, while keeping all at a safe distance. Hence the sprezzatura of White’s casual conversations. The poem “gather them & give them back to me” is said to be “after Toni Morrison” for the line in Morrison’s novel Beloved quoted by the title. This is the passage in Beloved in which the character Paul D remembers his friend Sixo describing his lost lover, Thirty-Mile Woman. Renia White’s poem rides on the allusive layers of Morrison’s novel as it deals with love and friendship and the passages back and forth between the two, especially in death’s interruption of our conversations:

I don’t have the wherewithal to die today,
not with you here. (thank you for that)
you say things could be simple, and sometimes
they are. it’s true, we only need what we need
in order to have all we need. nothing more,
but love, which is a texture you say you don’t
understand. but look at this bread in my mouth
and your hand in mine although we barely touch
because how outlandish—to feel even further? beyond
the sure blessing? so your hand isn’t in mine, but I feel
it there—when I am asleep, awake, inside my mind room.
I touch everything I walk by or into.     but, you     here?
and us with hands in case we need them?     I think this is it,
but if you want to make it more complicated, I agree.

Personally I think it is the nature of long relationships, like marriage and friendships, to grow ever more complicated without losing an essential simplicity. So that in a fourteen-line poem like this we can see, if we wish, the dimensions of a sonnet almost at a glance, which deepens, grows more complicated as we read. White’s poems often give us this conversation between a poem and its verse tradition.

The sense of the line as a line, as a unit of verse, rhythm, and meaning is one of the attractive qualities of White’s poetry. Not only in this sonnet, but in just about all of her poems. There are two title poems; the first about an apparent lynching, in “my God // Mississippi // oh Lord.” The second, a confession of longing to retreat from such a reality, employs what looks at first like a step-down line:

I wanna see less

when I look at a life

but all the buttons and bullets

riddling everything.

And yet we are also in the presence of the distich or hemistich, bequeathed us by Anglo-Saxon:

my lover’s mouth is gilded

with my name.

my dream mouth gilded

with rose gold fronts

Forms like lines do bring with them certain attitudes, certain thematic tropes:

my favorite boy shining

my sister out of jail

my mind picks up where I was left

A control and concern with the line, as here, finds its subject as if it were mined. In this tantalizing poet that path or road or shaft toward the right or the wrong place has a rhythm, and its inevitable end has a value, a lasting virtue, even if misplaced, as in “misgiving.”

so I walked to the wrong town and built
a house.          ’cause I couldn’t confess
I’d gone the wrong way confidently.
due to love, unable to turn around and fail
in front of everyone           yes, I walked
to the wrong place and stayed.

The only thing we can expect from this unpredictable and engaging poet is that she will make each destination an inevitable stopping place.
Life’s essential limitations are enunciated in the title of Anni Liu’s first book, Border Vista.[2] The subliminal pun “broader” in “border” allows us to think in larger terms. Born in China, the poet grew up there and in Bowling Green, Ohio. The double consciousness of that growing up, both in China and in the American Midwest, is foregrounded in “Ars Poetica in a Dream Language”: “I can’t / unhear my Chinese memories in English / does that make them / American memories.” The answer to that rhetorical question comes in representations of family, her parents in particular, and the tangled mesh created by knowing more than one language intimately, as both émigré and exile. The association with her mother throughout the book is pronounced early on when she writes “a language is the way someone you love / looks when speaking it.” Form and formlessness do their dance in such a way that quoting a passage is challenging. And yet the poet’s sense of proportion and the verse line never falter. The first two stanzas of “Pantoum” allow her to represent the interchange of language and memory as in a palimpsest:

New leaves, cold hands, the gray morning
promising rain. I might stay in a dream
of dead poets dying again: Táo Yuānmíng,
who I wake saying I must re-read.

Rain’s tender promises stay in my dreams
the pavement slick under the bike tire
from which I wake, saying I must read more Chinese,
unearth poems memorized from another millennium.

The story that emerges is that the father emigrated to the United States, then the poet, and then perhaps the mother. It becomes difficult to know how important the nature of the emigration is at last. One of the most moving poems is a nostalgic reminiscence of a romantic relationship which included having a stepson. In “Open Letter to the Boy in the Car,” some kid has called out an insult at her, and she has recognized it. The poem ends:

These days, the distance from heartbreak
to rage is so small, I am already giving you
the finger and walking away, hearing
your vulgar retort, still seeing in your face
the face of a boy I loved.

This is a poetry of ambiguity in form and meaning, while also offering surface clarity. That boy at the end could be her stepson or his father. There is a young person here held in suspension, on the border of another self and another country, which could be represented by English or Chinese, but probably both. The distance between them is small. Throughout the book, the juxtaposition of Chinese and English alphabets can be jarring. And yet it allows us to experience the two worlds in one as they jostle for space in the poet’s consciousness.
Poetry is serious business to the poets here, but Ron Padgett has always seasoned his solemnity with gaiety and tongue-in-cheek wisecracks and his own canny sense of surrealism. His new book[3] is little different from the first book of his I ever read, Great Balls of Fire, back in 1969, and the book’s title, Dot, derives in part from an opening meditation on names, symbols, and cartoons evoked by the word. Dot can be short for Dorothy, or it can be the divisor of the URL address, as in .com, and so on. This lover of the French Surrealists and translator of Apollinaire refuses the somber attire of Eliot and Pound and those Modernists. But with all due respect to that wonderful early book, Great Balls of Fire, I don’t see the poet hammering out rock-and-roll on piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. Padgett isn’t wild, he’s precise, a minimalist like John Cage and loose-limbed in the same way, fond of the large gesture in a small space that might knock valuable knickknacks off the shelf but deft enough either not to do so or make their tumbling part of the artistic effect. Choosing almost at random, but not really, here’s “Ticket”:

A car drives through
the visual patterns
in my brain, the driver
my father
totally at ease
at 110 miles per hour.
All I see
is a blur go by
but I know who
it is.

Of course the fourth line is crucial to this moving violation. Likeability is rarely an aspect of poetry, but it is of Padgett’s. He can’t be serious, can he? But that’s not even the question. And that’s why he’s likeable, except when name dropping, a typical strategy of his generation of New York School Poets. And even then, it depends on the name. We might shrug at references to Bill Berkson or even “Bill” de Kooning, but “The World Without John Ashbery” with its anti-elegiac mood is surprising. When imagining the years ahead, in which Ashbery is absent, the poet asks:

Will people look back
and scratch their heads
the way some do now?
I hope not. But
it’s out of my hands
anyway, and I
won’t care one whit.

The schadenfreude is a little uncomfortable, until the anti-elegist breaks in with “But what he did, / his poetry, that is, / is great.” It takes a poet like Padgett to turn bathos into pathos. Now, after half a century or more, I think the ephebes of the New York School always knew that one day no one would know who they were or their dropped names. And even likeability needs a dash of its opposite.

Padgett’s poems at times seem as if they were smirking at you across a public space, as if they were hip to something, like the possibility that neither of you belong there. Or maybe only you do not. Or only them. I once heard a poet disparage one of our elders because he had never developed. I think he meant had never gone through the radical changes we see in the generation of, say, Robert Lowell and his associates. But I couldn’t understand why this was a drawback. Ron Padgett has stuck with the same riff for over fifty years and, at its best, it has remained fresh. And yet perhaps that development that comes when death becomes inevitable, part of the equation, and utterly real has occurred seamlessly in this poet. Padgett suggests as much in another poem about driving: “The time will come / when the car will stop / and you will get out . . . / and you will see / all round you / nothing.”
I don’t know why I have always thought of the poet Heather Sellers as primarily a writer of prose. My favorites of her books have been the collection of short stories Georgia Under Water and the memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, one of the best I’ve ever read. But her work is mainly made up of volumes of poetry. Still, reading her latest collection,[4] I couldn’t shake the sense that a superb fiction writer, especially short fiction writer, was employing her art, the art of scene setting, in a way that charges each scene with its own poetry. The lines are long and arranged on the page like prose. Here’s the opening of “Longing, Wading”:

Marble statues from the 1920s line our island’s promenade. The women have lost their arms and what they were holding. Boys are losing their faces.

They would not be turning and bending if there was no narrative.

Yes, and yet the narrative per se never emerges; rather it remains submerged or likely to be, as is much of the Florida landscape where the poems take place. These notes from the field describe the aftermath of flood. The field itself is the flood. And the rain that causes flooding is a recurring motif. The poems are like skerries or shoals, emerging at low tide or as the water ebbs. Rain can come in “draperies,” and it can cause disastrous accidents, but the beauty and the vibrancy of much of this book, which is at times dire in its portrayals of loneliness, has to do with changeability of the emotional weather. “Today’s rain is not the kind that gets you wet,” the poet writes. “More of a blossoming.” Again and again I brought to mind the great final speech of Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, and the sense that unique and individual human experience is lost with each passing, like “tears in rain.” But in Heather Sellers’ poems tears and rain are one, unified, and not lost in each other but manifest in each other. The flood zone is an emotional battlefield as well as a plane of earnest existence. When, in the poem “Translation,” a real estate agent asks, “Is the Property located in a Special Hazard Zone?,” the poet answers, “The property is located on Earth.” And we know that flooded or barren, earth itself is a hazard zone.

The story of a broken relationship, not just the end of a romance, but of a household, brims these lines, though their trim self-containment suggests that any emotional flotsam and jetsam has been salvaged and rendered into buoyant frameworks, like flotillas of rafts and glass-bottomed boats. “The First Time I Went to His House” comes as close as any to telling us the whole story of this sad estrangement. The lover walks the poet through his neighborhood detailing the illnesses and deaths in each house: “Ovarian cancer. Prostate cancer. A low tan house: cancer of the tongue.” But the poem reveals only that: “We didn’t speak. We did not speak one word. And I drove home late alone.” It could be that living with heartbreak is preferable to living in a morgue. The glassy surfaces of the flood tide are crisscrossed by currents, ripples, spiraling patterns, all emerging from poems whose stillness is in fact a form of surface tension and emotional depth. When the house across from hers succumbs to decay, and its lot is excavated and filled, the “modern mansion” that will replace it is imagined for the family who will occupy it, as “their dream house built in the future sea.”
We lost the irreplaceable poet Tony Hoagland in 2018, yet thanks to the editing of his wife, the fiction writer and essayist Kathleen Lee, we are able to re-experience his company in this posthumous collection.[5] The poems are a kind of stock taking, not unusual for a poet who often stops himself mid-poem and asks what he and we are doing here. This happens in the first poem, “Bible All Out of Order.”

Remember the movie in which Sidney Poitier plays a school teacher
who returns the love letter from one of his students,
returns it with all the grammatical errors
corrected in red, heartbreaking ink?

I’m sometimes afraid that’s what I’ve done with life.

Hoagland was a college professor, and he knows he’s talking to people like himself, whose first impulse may be to identify the movie as possibly “To Sir, with Love” and then to think of other movies starring Sidney Poitier or someone who is playing a teacher who cruelly does that very thing to a student. But Hoagland’s aim is to take us on adventure after adventure in the sleek or creaky, always amazing, contraption of extended metaphor. By the time we’ve fixed the moment, we’re in the moment, knowing we’ve done that with our lives, too.

One could go through Turn Up the Ocean just listing the brilliant titles and trotting out the traumatizing and seductive metaphors and similes. In “Squad Car Light,” I felt stunned by an allusion to the Passion of Christ. Describing the police arriving to arrest a neighbor, the poet says of the police car’s flashing emergency light:

This was the light that splashed the leaves
that night in the Garden of Gethsemane,
the night they came to fetch the teacher,

and spread him on the hood of his own car . . .

As the poems venture ever deeper into the experience of dying and its attendant instruments and operations, there is “Autumn”:

November is a giant hypodermic
from which hangs one glistening drop of nostalgia.

The grotesqueries of disease and its preventatives are everywhere, from a blood-stained gauze found in the pocket of trousers that no longer fit (“Bandage”) to the nature of pain itself, in “Weather of Pain,” as “a sort of information / that arrives like a wave / and stays as a tidal action / surging around your foundation.” The most ambitious of these extended metaphors is the poem “Siberia.” Although the poet draws a parallel between himself and “a Russian poet / who’s been exiled to a remote / village in Siberia,” he startles most with the candid literalness of the poem’s first line: “In these final few months of my life . . .”

Hoagland’s ambition in all his poems was never to be passive, except as an active observer, if you will pardon the paradox. “Gorgon,” the second poem in the volume, recalls Henry James’s comment about “the cold Medusa-face of life” and describes our mutual task in that life. If “the world is a Gorgon,” posits Hoagland, then “your job is to not be turned into stone.” But you can also choose the background music of your extinction. The title poem, “Turn Up the Ocean,” introduces us to “a machine that plays noises recorded from nature.” Disappointed by humanity, his own and others, the poet tells us:

I’m going to rely
on the great outdoors,

which I keep in my little room,
where I’m going to turn up the ocean.

I’m grateful to have Tony Hoagland’s poetry, in this book and others, for playing the same role, of making pain endurable. The realities of his poetry may be virtual in that they are metaphorical, but they remain unchecked by death, more alive with every reading.
[1] CASUAL CONVERSATION, by Renia White. BOA Editions, Ltd. $17.00p.

[2] BORDER VISTA, by Anni Liu. Persea Books. $15.95p.

[3] DOT, by Ron Padgett. Coffee House Press. $16.95p.

[4] FIELD NOTES FROM THE FLOOD ZONE, by Heather Sellers. BOA Editions, Ltd. $17.00p.

[5] TURN UP THE OCEAN, by Tony Hoagland. Graywolf Press. $16.00p.