Monthly Archives: May 2020

Review of How the Universe is Made by Stephanie Strickland

Stephanie Strickland. How the Universe Is Made: Poems New and Selected, 1985-2019. Ahsahta Press, 2019. 293 pgs. $21.00.

Reviewing a collected or selected volume of poetry is always a challenge. There’s so much to say in response to decades of any author’s work, which has inevitably changed through those decades, in response to events in the writer’s own life, in response to or reaction against political and social changes as well as aesthetic developments in literature and other arts.

Stephanie Strickland’s newest collection, How the Universe Is Made: Poems New and Selected, 1985-2019, is particularly challenging to evaluate within the short space of a review because her work has grown uniquely experimental. She has written—or built, or designed—poems for many new media platforms, viewable online as websites with plug-ins like Adobe Shockwave or Flash, relying on code generated lines, on CDs, or with PowerPoint slides. Yet she simultaneously pays homage to canonical writers such as Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville (who were certainly experimental in their own times). Strickland’s body of knowledge is astonishing, for she incorporates material from virtually every academic discipline as she explores the coded nature of language and its role in humanity’s search for meaning.

Among the most prominent figures throughout How the Universe Is Made is French philosopher, activist, and mystic Simone Weil. Born into a non-observant Jewish family in 1909, Weil explored the teachings and literatures of several religious traditions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, before finding her eventual spiritual home within Catholicism; she was likely baptized shortly before her death in 1943. Weil’s daily life, however, was marked at least as much by her engagement with leftists political movements as it was by her mystical spirituality. These factors and others have made her an attractive as well as controversial figure for many groups of people during the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

In many of the poems, Strickland references Weil’s biography, though without directly explaining the details or slipping into a pedagogical tone. In several, Strickland incorporates quotations from Weil’s work and from others writing about her. Whether quoting or relying on her own language, Strickland’s work is elliptical, always hinting toward its subject, circling around it, exploring its facets without ever insisting that the reader concur. These lines are poetic responses to Weil, after all, not analyses or apologetics. Poetry compresses language, relying on attentive readers to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions. Here is “Agent,” a poem that occurs early in the selections from “The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil”:

How do you say her?
		Simone. Say Simone.
But she signs 
her letters, Your affectionate
son, Simon—

		she’s divided,
		always going half-way,
		a double agent.

How do you say Weil?

		Not Vile, not the German,
		although I would be pleased
		to call her Miss Because,

		but as the family said it,
		Vyay, Vey, an oversound
		of woe, of one

		who waits, keeps vigil.
		To us, a way away,

On one level, this poem is simply an exploration of a common conundrum—how do you pronounce “Weil”? Yet each of the pronunciations encapsulates meaning, and the words refer to aspects of her life—her German heritage, her desire to serve as an agent for the French resistance. She is not the “Vile” of German behavior during the 1930’s, but lest the poem become too predictably or simply anti-Nazi, Strickland introduces a pun, “Vey, an oversound / of woe,” oy vey, oy veh, the Yiddish expression whose use in American popular culture has become almost a parody of Jewish life. The puns continue, though more seriously, in the final stanza, wherein “Weil,” having become “Vey,” now becomes “way,” “a way away. A way for whom, we might ask, and away from what? The speaker says, “To us,” meaning perhaps herself and all readers, an anglicized pronunciation of Weil, a deep allusion also, perhaps, to Weil’s conversion to Christianity, as Jesus described himself as “the way.” And then we have the final line, the single word, “unavailing,” itself containing “Weil” pronounced in its center. “How do you say her?” the poem asks in its opening line. By the time we reach the end, we’ve been instructed in the proper pronunciation, but we’ve also been led astray, as much “away” as toward Weil, for she seems no more knowable here at the end than she was at the beginning. We can name her, but naming does not lead to possessing her, regardless of what the theologians or psychologists claim.

A couple of poems in the middle of this section appear to be spoken in Weil’s voice—though context is important, for nothing in the poems themselves overtly reveals this. “Justice” contains statements consistent with Weil’s theology, a view of God as absent from the matter of creation that some would find uncomfortable, even heretical. Yet the God portrayed here is attractive, even seductive:

As justice is to disregard your strength in an unequal
	relationship and to treat the other
	in every detail, even intonation, posture, exactly

as an equal:
	so God

all-powerful, does not exert power; God waits like a beggar
	for us, made equal, Might drawn

that the world

As justice: so God, secretly
	present, an opening in us that can move, consent, bond us

but not
	appearing—appearing absent; except
	for how a thing can be beautiful, constrained

to its nature, how that
	snares us. 

This poem is particularly philosophical and daring in its determination to take such an abstract concept as justice as its subject matter, but I am most attracted to its skillful craft. The poem’s arrangement on the page, along with its punctuation, encourages readers to slow down, to consider its ideas as well as its words. Notice how Strickland uses the line to both repeat and disguise her repetition as the logical sequence of the sentence shifts from premise to conclusion. “As justice,” the poem begins, leading to a similar phrase in the second stanza: “as an equal: / so God.” Immediately after the midpoint, parts of these phrases appear again, this time in a single line so that they stand out less obviously: “As justice: so God, secretly.” In case we leap ahead too confidently, the next stanza begins with a contradiction and paradox: “but not / appearing—appearing absent.” The poem concludes suddenly, imitating the quick unexpected act contained in the phrase, “snares us.”

Other reviewers will undoubtedly focus on the mathematical and technological content of How the Universe Is Made, for which I am glad. This collection is one that will elicit multiple responses, for it offers multiple points of entry. Its variety is among its strengths, yet its variety is also consistent with its material and approach, an exploration of all that which, like the universe, can never be fully known.

Review of What We Carry by Susan Glickman

Susan Glickman. What We Carry. Signal Editions, Véhicule Press. 2019. 89pgs. $14.95.

Summarizing either the thematic concerns or the stylistic characteristics of Susan Glickman’s latest collection, What We Carry, in a sentence or two—or even a paragraph—is virtually impossible. Several of the poems respond to Chopin’s Preludes. Others riff on slang phrases. Many explore the environmental crisis that human beings can no longer deny. Despite this variety, What We Carry consists of poems that are always individually interesting and yet also comment upon each other.

The voice is both poetic and speakerly; that is, the lines are filled with images and the language is often figurative while the tone is inviting and just casual enough. This is Glickman’s seventh collection of poetry—she has also published novels and children’s books—and her experience shows.

“Ice Storm,” for instance, is among the freest of the free-verse poems—neither its lines nor its stanzas at all imitate regularity, and the voice quickly shifts from comparatively formal at the beginning to one comfortable with slang. Through its choice of imagery and metaphor, the poem becomes itself an analysis of distinctions between figurative and literal, and of the value of those distinctions. The speaker consistently second-guesses her statements, correcting herself or at least refining her interpretations. Here is the first stanza:

Everything’s exquisite
albeit decorative and dead
as a Fabergé egg.
I put on my old-lady shoes
and heel-toe it down the street.
Over the pavement there is ice,
over the ice, slush,
over the slush a layer of snow
and sleety particulate
so that it is curiously like walking across sand
except not at the beach
and not in summer
where, after all, there would be
some vital signs.

Words like “exquisite,” “albeit,” even “Fabergé” suggest an educated and perhaps detached speaker, one who might not wear, or admit wearing, “old-lady shoes,” one who might not be playful enough to “heel-toe it.” Ironically, the most definite sonic device occurs in the opening more formal lines, the alliteration of “decorative and dead,” itself also an ironic commentary on beauty. Softer alliteration occurs a few lines later with “slush…slush…snow…sleety,” enhanced with the sibilants in “ice…ice” and “curiously.” The only simile occurs right then, “like walking across sand,” which the speaker immediately undercuts by discussing how the simile is inaccurate.

The second stanza begins by stating, “Ice does a plausible imitation of life,” and then continues with descriptions of ice in the mundane form of ice cubes rather than the “exquisite” meteorological ice from stanza one. This second stanza concludes with an associative memory of the speaker’s grandfather, permitting the third stanza to open with phrase containing such a common metaphor that we often forget its metaphoric status: “’On the rocks,’ he called it, / which baffled me as a child.” Many readers will recall that childhood bafflement on first hearing idiomatic or figurative language. Even here, the speaker revises her description, and the revision helps her convey her experience more accurately:

I was slow that way,
holding out for a version of the universe
where each thing was one thing only.
Or not slow, exactly, more like credulous
because I already knew better; knew

that the world I lived in
and the one I was told about
were not the same.

And so here she is, telling about the world herself, using language so infused with metaphor that one thing can never be “one thing only.” One thing can never be simply “Itself,” no matter how much we desire it to be, for each thing is interpreted as it is perceived—or if a thing can be exclusively “Itself,” it can never be that same “Itself” to anything else. As much as we require language to make sense of the world, language also inevitably filters our understanding.  Even the ending of this poem, for all of its critique of language, is ambiguous—is the tone matter-of-fact, mournful, or more sinister? I interpret it as sad, especially given the content of much of the rest of the collection, but in a different context, it could easily be read differently.

“At Drake Bay” begins as a simple—attractive but still apparently simple—description of fish near shore, but it becomes, at its conclusion, a summary of the collection’s primary theme. The speaker watches as

blue damselfish flickered
amidst the wavering angels,
lavender puffers lurked under lava rock,
and between trees of white coral
darted silver needles.

Again, here, the most common sonic elements are alliteration and assonance. Glickman seems attentive to sound without being obsessed with it—the sounds are attractive, but they don’t overwhelm the ear.

In its final stanza, the poem becomes much more thematically explicit:

At night millions of stars
watched, or didn’t,
from an impenetrable sky.
One definition of grace: nature
without us.

Despite its brevity, this stanza accomplishes a lot. The first lines call attention to human solipsism, with our frequent temptation to assume that all of creation attends to us. The fourth line of this stanza exploits enjambment, a tactic Glickman seldom takes, and so it stands out particularly strongly. The line seems logical, even reassuring, almost Romantic: “One definition of grace: nature.” But the sentence doesn’t end there: “nature / without us.” As much of the rest of the book demonstrates through its exploration of extinction and other environmental disasters, we have chosen instead to be us without nature.

Glickman uses her straightforward diction to her advantage throughout the collection. It permits her to call attention to environmental collapse without sounding accusatory or self-righteous. She leaves readers to examine their own consciences. There’s a lot more to discuss in What We Carry—Glickman’s explorations of art and beauty and everyday life, her finesse with form, her ability to connect the one to the many—but rather than risk that her poetry will be lost in the analysis as it so often is in the translation, I’ll simply encourage readers to pick up this collection, then to explore her earlier work, and then to hope for

Review of Pantheon by Philip Memmer

Pantheon by Philip Memmer. Lost Horse Press, 2019. 64 pgs. $18.00.

Pantheon is the perfect title for Philip Memmer’s latest collection, for nearly every poem is titled for a god, though they are gods you’ve likely never considered—“The God of Adequacy,” “The God of Shrugs,” “Your God’s God.” After other books called Lucifer: A Hagiography and The Storehouses of the Snow: Psalms, Parables, and Dreams, this new Memmer title should not surprise us. Like the poems in these earlier collections, though, Memmer’s approach to topics that would seem overtly religious is delightfully unorthodox. As such, they are refreshingly faithful.

Though varying in length, the poems here are structured similarly, arranged into tercets, with the second two lines of each stanza indented. The tone is sometimes wry, bemused, occasionally reassuring. Whether god or human, each speaker is accessible—I know this guy, we might think—and yet each speaker also offers some insight we might have almost but never truly grasped for ourselves.

In “The God of Wisdom,” the god describes “you” climbing the proverbial mountain at whose peak wisdom surely resides. The “you” is confident, maybe even smug about his abilities to both climb and perceive: “You walk, // and—too soon, you’re sure—approach / what looks like/ the summit.” Experienced mountaineers might grin here, for the first summit is seldom actually the true summit. The “you” becomes slightly irritable as each hilltop reveals another to be ascended, until Memmer takes the greatest risk in the poem: “another crest, obscured behind the last, / comes into view. You / climb it, and // another crest, obscured behind the last, / comes into view. You / climb it, and…” Some poets might have enough nerve to repeat this stanza yet another time, but Memmer repeats it a total of nine times, covering an entire page with these lines, his hyperbole (except it’s probably more realistic than hyperbolic) amusing those of us who have the luxury of reading about this trek from the comfort of our lazyboys. The God of Wisdom, who is the speaker of the poem, assures the frustrated climber that the bartender in the pub at the foot of the original hill will indeed serve him, “stained // with so much sweat and mud” as he is. And, ironically, this god is as comfortable as the reader: “I’m here, where I’ve always been: / by myself // in the overstuffed chair by the fire. / Yes: you stink / of effort and failure // and faithfulness. Take your boots off, / if you think you can, / and buy me a drink.” So, the God of Wisdom relaxes continually in a pub, where people congregate, though this god remains alone. Memmer’s skill with lineation is evident here, for despite the constraints of the form he has chosen, he is nevertheless able to defer a sentence’s full meaning through his line breaks, “effort and failure // and faithfulness.” Success isn’t measured by the you’s scaling the ultimate true peak but by his persistence through those nine repeated hopes and disappointments. But the God of Wisdom, rather than rewarding the you with a drink, rewards him with the opportunity to buy this god a drink. Memmer the poet, channeling the voice of this god, remains always one step ahead of the reader.

Another of my favorites from this collection is “The God of Driving Alone in the Middle of the Night.” Memmer’s conceit here permits him to describe the all-too-common experience of dozing off behind the wheel of a car and waking up just in time to avoid a fatal crash but to infuse this description with a new interpretation. The addressee in this poem wakens as he hears the shoulder’s gravel beneath his tires, along with screams of passengers from another car. The driver of the other car is, of course, the God of Driving Alone…. Yet, this god’s point is not that he saved the you, who, unlike the addressee in “The God of Wisdom,” hadn’t set out in search of a transcendent experience, but that this late-night meeting doesn’t necessarily signify much of anything. This god says, “those were my high beams // splitting the road down the middle… / that was my horn, four screams / still echoing // with your own. The devil-red glow / you pant in / is from my taillights—I’m gone // and I’m not slowing down. Don’t follow. / Someone else / will have to bless you now.” Those final three lines are stunning. They are provocative—what god has ever forbidden followers? They might even seem cruel. But then I, as reader, wonder, could this last line also be read as assurance, that someone else will always arrive just in time to offer a blessing? Maybe not every time but enough of the time.

Every poem in Pantheon engaged me. Every one called me to reread it, attending to its craft, its technique, as well as its content. Memmer is a highly proficient poet who has demonstrated mastery of craft in his previous collections also, so although I admire his skill in these poems, I was not surprised by it. What did surprise me is how much I enjoyed each of the 29 poems individually, for how many collections can be, from beginning to end, that satisfying?