Monthly Archives: August 2015

Review of American Psalm, World Psalm by Nicholas Samaras

Samaras coverNicholas Samaras. American Psalm, World Psalm. Ashland Poetry Press, 2014. 233 pgs. $22.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Nicholas Samaras’ second collection, American Psalm, World Psalm is a hybrid book, though not “hybrid” in the sense that we often hear the word applied to contemporary literature. It’s not the offspring of prose and poetry, of memoir and fiction, or of print and electronic text. It is, instead, a hybrid of psalm and poem. Those two aren’t entirely distinct genres, of course, since psalms are by definition poems, though the reverse is not true. Yet psalms in their canonical sense share particular characteristics even as they can be further classified as psalms of praise, psalms of lament, imprecatory psalms, historical psalms, etc. The most common linguistic feature of Biblical psalms is their use of parallelism, e.g. “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples, / I will sing praises to you among the nations” (Ps. 108:3). Consistent parallelism as a formal trait is rare in contemporary poetry in English, though canonical psalms also rely on the types of figurative language we also expect in other types of poetry, e.g. “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). In these modern psalms, Samaras doesn’t rely on the parallelism so characteristic of their Hebrew kin; nor do these psalms always respond explicitly or directly to those in the Bible. Yet American Psalm, World Psalm contains 150 entries, just as the Book of Psalms does, and Samaras’ collection is arranged into five “books,” just as the Book of Psalms is. And Samaras’ psalms are prayers as much as poems, with God clearly among his intended audience. A few of the pieces in this collection do succeed more as prayer than poem (odd as it is to suggest that prayers “succeed” or not), but I will focus here on the psalms that are also most effective as poems.

The poems in this collection vary in form—couplets, quatrains, single long stanzas; rhyme and free verse; litanies and blues. They also vary considerably in length, though the average might be about a page. Yet they are consciously products of their time, containing frequent political and cultural references in the vocabulary of our day—that is, they are “American” psalms and they are “World” psalms. Samaras’ position and politics, in both the narrow and broader senses, drive several of the poems as the speaker responds to contemporary events and values with anger and occasional despair. Many of the poems, though—and these are the ones I’m most drawn to—are more personal lyrics that also respond to the human condition.

“The Unpronounceable Psalm,” Psalm 2 in the collection, illustrates how figurative language can be used to express frustration with the limits of language, even while exploiting the beauty of that very language. It begins with these sentences:

I couldn’t wrap my mouth around the vowel of your name.
Your name, a cave of blue wind that burrows and delves
endlessly, that rings off the walls of my drumming, lilting heart,
through the tiny pulsations of my wrists, the blood in my neck.

Many people consider that God has a name, and that God’s name is “God,” and that they can pronounce it very well. The poem here though specifies “the vowel of your name,” the breath of it linking one consonant with another. If Samaras is referring here to a specific name, it is likely the word generally translated as “Yahweh,” a breathy word itself, or he may be alluding to the fact that Hebrew is printed without vowels. Or he may not be referring to a specific name but rather to the challenge of knowing God well enough to pronounce God’s name. Regardless of Samaras’ intent, however, all of those meanings are layered into the first line. The poem continues with an explicit metaphor: “Your name, a cave of blue wind…” which extends through the sentence, until we reach its end, understanding that God’s name pulses in human veins and human blood. What is attractive to me about these lines, however, is the language and the imagery, words that invite my return until, hearing the ringing and drumming and lilting, I follow the language into its possibilities of meaning.

As this poem progresses toward its conclusion, the figurative language remains prominent, until in the penultimate sentence circles back to the imagery above:

…my words
are only the echo of you that rings within my soul, my soul
a cave of blue wind that houses the draft of you,
the eternal vowel of you I can’t wrap my mouth around.

God’s name is equivalent here to the human soul, each metaphorized as “a cave of blue wind.” and it is God, rather than the name of God, that is the “eternal vowel” here. Extending these figurative equivalencies, God is God’s name, and God’s name is the human soul, and so therefore God is the human soul. We want to be careful to avoid overinterpreting metaphor, but the theology of this poem is undeniably complex. The poem is not a treatise, however, and the reader’s primary task is not to untangle its logic. Rather, the reader surrenders to immersion in metaphor and image, the true pleasure of this text, and then perhaps considers the theology, patiently, curiously.

Some of the poems in this collection are overtly political. Others border on the mystical, though in contrast to some mystical writing, they are not impenetrable or hermetic. As with other types of writing, the mystical and the political form separate threads in this volume. Most readers, certainly those with a Christian background, will find all of the poems accessible. And like the Biblical psalms, American Psalm, World Psalm is most fruitfully read in small sections, a poem or two at a time, over the course of weeks rather than hours.



Review of I Watched You Disappear by Anya Krugovoy Silver

Silver coverAnya Krugovoy Silver. I Watched You Disappear. Louisiana State University Press, 2014. 73 pgs. $17.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Like many readers, I found Anya Krugovoy Silver’s first collection, The Ninety-Third Name of God, published in 2010, absolutely stunning. I waited impatiently for her next collection, I Watched You Disappear, and eagerly read it when it was published a few months ago. The two books share several themes, especially the speaker’s relationship with God and the effects of living with cancer. I Watched You Disappear is the more somber of the two, as the speaker’s community seems to absorb one death after another, and it more predominantly focuses on death and grief. This collection is more emotionally difficult because of death’s relentless hovering and so harder to read straight through, but the poems are just as accomplished and memorable as the ones in Silver’s first collection.

“Night Prayer,” the second poem in the collection, is stylistically representative of many of the poems in the book. At fourteen lines, it gestures toward the sonnet, with some iambic stretches in the lines though no absolute iambic pentameter, and with some near rhyme though no pattern of true rhyme. If there is a turn in this poem, it is slight and occurs after line ten, or maybe even line twelve, rather than following an octave. Still, the poem takes prayer as its subject, something that can be turned over and examined from multiple angles, relying on imagery and metaphor rather than narrative to drive it forward, and it concludes with a couplet (though the poem is arranged as one stanza) that clicks closed with the finality common to sonnets. Many of the lines seem to question not only the efficacy of prayer but also the existence of an always apparently silent audience. The poem opens this way:

I talk and talk and hear nothing back.
You who are neither voice, nor sign,
nor image. In answer to my pleas,
not the slightest flutter of humid air
or pause in cicadas’ raspy vespers.

According to this poem, prayer is what makes nothing happen. Not only does God fail to respond, but the speaker’s environment is so uniform from one minute to the next that she can’t interpret any event as a sign even if she’s determined to.

If nothing happens around the speaker, however, something does happen within the poem. The first line begins iambically, and it contains the near rhyme (or at least a sonic reference) of “talk” and “back.” With seven of its eight words being monosyllabic, this line sounds insistent, and the insistence carries into the first half of the next line. By sentence three, however, beginning in line three and carrying through line five, the pace slows, with softer sounds and substantially fewer monosyllables. Rather than the hard sound of “k” repeated three times, line five renders its meaning through the thrice-repeated “p.” Because Silver has slowed the pace, the reader becomes prepared for a more reflective consideration of the speaker’s experience, as eventually occurs. The next lines reproduce some of the sounds we notice in lines four and five:

No stutter of starlight, no pillow
slipped beneath my knees or swallow-
tail alighting on my waiting hands.

Line six develops through true alliteration—“stutter of starlight”—and moves into the closest example of true rhyme in the poem, “pillow” and “swallow.” In addition, “slipped” extends this section of the poem’s reliance on “p” and “l” to maintain the slower rhythm. In terms of content, the imagery reinforces the statements in lines one through three suggesting God’s absence. Because of its mastery of craft, the poem has been pleasurable to read throughout, but the final two lines provide the most satisfying surprise. I, at least, was expecting some sort of resignation if not outright anger from the speaker, but instead she closes with an acceptance that reminds us, through image as well as denotation, of her connection to God:

And what I speak remains traceless—
like a beetle’s breath, this Amen. 

The speaker’s words leave as little evidence of their existence as the God whom the poem addresses, and in this way the speaker resembles her audience; she is an “image” that was called absent in line three. Her last word, “Amen,” concluding the prayer, reinforces the speaker’s status as creature rather than would-be creator, as understanding and accepting her identity in terms of the divine.

A poem toward the end of the collection, “Portraits in the Country,” adopts a similar strategy at its conclusion. Several of the poems in this last section of the book are ekphrastic, and Silver provides an identification here: “Gustave Caillebotte, 1876.” The poem responds to Caillebotte’s painting, Portraits à la Campagne, in which four women relax in a park, doing needlework or reading. The speaker associates herself with them as she proceeds through time without the hurry or rush or busyness so characteristic of our era. Instead, she says,

I am shutting my ears to the hours,
to the bell tower’s quarterly reminder
that I should be doing something useful.

Usefulness can be valuable, but it does not constitute the total meaning of our lives. This speaker chooses attentiveness and meditation:

For death has come to our windows,
the preacher says, it has entered our palaces.
But I will not rush to push down my sash.
Instead, I will turn the leaf of my book.

Here, the speaker refuses to deny what she knows, death’s undeniable presence, but she also refuses to permit that knowledge to consume her. Again in these lines, Silver creates part of the effect through sound, here the repetition of “sh”: rush, push, sash. The poem would be perfectly fine it if concluded with this line, but Silver extends it with a surprising turn similar to the one in “Night Prayer”:

See with what gentle gravity God
lets it hover, in balance, then fall to its side.

These poems call their readers to share in their reflection. They don’t demand rereading as more elusive poems sometimes do; instead they invite rereading through the hospitality of the tone and language. Of course, now, I am looking forward to Silver’s next book. But I am also content to wait, for the poems we have already in her first two collections welcome our lingering.


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