Tag Archives: Press 53

Review of Hope of Stones by Anna Elkins

Anna Elkins. Hope of Stones. Press 53. 2020. 65 pages. $14.95.

Anna Elkins’ Hope of Stones is organized around one of the most unusual premises I’ve seen in a collection of contemporary poetry. Two historical figures dominate the collection, Teresa of Ávila, 16th century nun, saint, and author of The Interior Castle, and Charles-Axel Guillaumot, 18th century French architect who created catacombs beneath Paris in order to reinforce tunnels under the city that had been dug to extract building stones. A third figure, the poet, communicates with both, often revealing intersections between them.

The poems are laid out on the page distinctly, with the architect’s aligning with the bottom margin, the nun’s justified right, and the poet’s conventionally justified left and beginning near the top margin. What begins with an author’s obsessive interest in two unrelated persons eventually reveals that very few objects or ideas, not to mention people, are in fact separated from each other. What have stones to do with light, or bones to do with prayer?—as much, it turns out, as imminence has to do with transcendence.

The collection is arranged into three sections, “pray,” “build,” and “wonder.” Each of those words would seem to be affiliated with one of the characters speaking through the collection, but each section includes poems of all three individuals; readers realize that wonder is often a form of prayer, as is building. In attempting to understand the architect and the nun, the poet is also attempting to understand herself, of course, as well as the world and its creator.

In “The Poet, Fasting,” the speaker describes a fast required by a dental procedure, considering how mundane necessity sometimes leads to revelation. “I lie beneath the maple tree on a quilt & watch / the sky beneath branches,” she says. Though her thoughts wander, they remain focused primarily on the practical: “how all these leaves will need / raking come fall, what to juice for second breakfast, / when to run the dishwasher.” Here the poem shifts, exactly in its center, to explore the nature of women mystics, women required to attend to household tasks regardless of their spiritual lives. We might think of Teresa of Ávila here, or as likely, the many women whose names are lost to history. The speaker, the poet, as is evident here and in several other poems, longs for mystical experience: “Transcendence—/ I am the woman lying beneath the tree & the woman / floating above it, hoping to see God.” This description of transcendence is provocative. The woman remains attached to earth, her entire body literally in touch with it. Yet she also drifts upward, letting go of whatever tethers her.

In poems like this, the poet’s attraction to a figure like Teresa is understandable. Yet the architect, too, though he was not professionally—or perhaps even personally—religious, encounters suggestions of the transcendent daily. He is saving Paris from literal collapse by shoring up its foundation with the skeletons of its dead. Nothing conveys mortality like bones. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the subject, thoughts of mortality almost inevitably lead to questions of immortality, of whether “this”—this world, this physical life—is all there is, of, in other words, dreams of transcendence. “The Architect & the Macabre” describes Guillaumot’s work most directly. Here it is in its entirety:

Thousands of carts of bones, of earth, of coffin
wood. Hundreds of torches & ells of canvas.
Dozens of pounds of candles & solder. One
goal: to empty the cemeteries. This collection
of skeletons will be unsurpassed. At Montrouge,
we dump the bones into a hole, & a dangling
chain scatters them as they fall. At the bottom,
we arrange them in columns & rows, creating
friezes of femurs & walls of skulls. Bones of third-
century saints—those who died before Saint Denis
Christianized the city—mix with bones of those
I might have known. Epochs & generations
blend, no origin left to matter.

The physical description here is macabre. Bones of saints and bones of sinners are reinterred together, their mass grave simply a solution to a problem of physics. The architect doesn’t even gesture to the sacred. The ultimate arrangement of the bones might seem artful, but the goal is practical rather than aesthetic.

While the poems of the nun and of the poet vary in form, nearly all of the poems of the architect are formatted this way, in a single block stanza, each line approximately the same length, the stanza most often between 10 and 15 lines. The form reproduces the architect’s thinking and observation; masonry relies on regularity. Mysticism, on the other hand, defies order. Although the rhythm in the architect’s poems is not metrically regular, the lines are tight, with plenty of accented syllables. One of the most interesting aspects of these poems, in terms of craft, is how Elkins uses the line in the architect’s poems. In “The Architect and the Macabre,” most lines are enjambed, but it is the nature and variety of the enjambment that interests me. In the first line, the enjambment is dramatic—“coffin” parallel to “bones” and “earth” but leading to a single syllable, “wood,” beginning the second line, a period immediately following “wood.” The opposite strategy occurs in line three, with a period occurring just before the last syllable of the line: “solder. One / goal.” This enjambment significantly disrupts the grammar of the sentences, forcing the reader to pause at that insistent break. In line eight, however, the enjambment encourages the reader to rush on to the next line, as line eight ends with a present participle: “we arrange them in columns & rows, creating / friezes…” This is the type of enjambment T.S. Eliot uses to begin “The Waste Land”: April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire…” The participle nearly deletes the pause at the line break, forcing the reader beyond mere grammatical sense. Elkins’ line break here emphasizes the architect’s creative endeavor, though it will remain almost invisible to those who benefit from it.

Much more so than with end-stopped lines, enjambment compounds the meaning of the sentences. Line twelve, for example, reads as a sentence whose meaning differs from the actual sentences, “I might have known. Epochs and generations.” Read as a unit, that line suggests more than the sentences do alone:

…Bones of third-
century saints—those who died before Saint Denis
Christianized the city—mix with bones of those
I might have known. Epochs & generations
blend, no origin left to matter.

Elkins’ skill with craft equals the uniqueness of her content. She is the author of several other books, including an earlier collection of poetry, The Space Between. Although she writes in many genres,  readers who enjoy The Hope of Stones will find many of the others gratifying also, for her focus is consistent across genres—travel and spirituality, the inner and outer journeys, and the correspondence between them.

Review of Drowning in a Floating World by Meg Eden

Meg Eden. Drowning in the Floating World. Press 53. 69 pages. $14.95.

The first thing readers will notice about Meg Eden’s Drowning in the Floating World is its subject matter—the earthquake of 2011 that led to the Japanese tsunami and the nuclear reactor damage that followed. The next thing most American readers will notice, I suspect, is how little they know about Japan and Japanese culture. Reading these poems attentively for content, readers will also begin to notice how adept they are with form, how their

effects emerge from skilled craft as much as content. Eden explores this disaster and her response to it through individual and communal experience. There’s much grief here, of course, but also hope—the story doesn’t end with despair.

One of the most direct narrative poems in the collection is “Corpse Washing,” designated as “after Rilke.” The speaker here is a mortician who is preparing a girl’s body for cremation in the presence of the girl’s family. Eden reveals some of the gruesome details, but she does not exploit them for shock value; the tone remains neutral, while respect for the dead requires such honesty. Toward the beginning, the speaker describes preparation of the corpse:

Her family shows me her class
picture, I compare it to
the body in front of me
bones shaped like a hand; a burrow
of dark wet flesh, overrun by maggots.

I wash what remains of her
under the funeral garb and, knowing
nothing of drowning, everything
of drowning, I imagine
the journey of her body.

I patch in the maggot holes. I fill
her mouth with cotton. The mother
brings me the lipstick she used to wear—
a bubblegum pink—and for a moment,
the girl’s lips look soft and alive.

Although some of these details are typical of funeral preparations, others are not, the maggots of course, but also the girl’s youth, the difference between the photo of the girl and her remains. These stanzas are effective in part because of their attention to concrete actions and facts, but also through the sentence structure, all of them beginning subject-verb, the most straightforward, almost journalistic, English sentence structure. The only abstract reference is the speaker’s imagining “the journey of her body,” and even that is brief, permitting readers also to do their own imagining. The last quoted line here relieves the readers from some of their horror, but that relief is momentary, as the next section begins, “I brush the seaweed and trash / from her remaining hair until it’s soft.”

The entire poem consists of eleven regular stanzas, each five lines long, the lines themselves not metrically regular but approximate enough in length to reinforce the direct presentation of detail. Only as the poem concludes does the speaker indicate how desperate this event is:

The mother takes
the last water to her daughter’s
lips, but the girl rejects it.
She’s had more than enough
water for one life.

This is how we say farewell:
the girl’s favorite dress is brought.
A summer dress, short sleeved
and red like poppies. Laid over
her body, the dress is engulfing.

Inside her coffin, the girl is lifted
to the oven. The fire is living and god-like.
She is fed into it, quickly,
before anyone can imagine her burning-alive
hair, the gnashing of that poppy dress.

Only here, at the end, does the speaker permit metaphor. The emotional restraint of the first ten stanzas heightens the effect of this final, horrifying act. The details, especially “that poppy dress,” suggest the workings of human memory, how the smallest things haunt us.

A very different poem, “All Summer I Wore,” begins with a line that could be a continuation of “Corpse Washing.” The title leads into the first line, “dead girls’ dresses.” A less imaginative poet would have continued along this line, but Eden creates an anaphoric chant, each line until the last beginning “I wore” and incorporating so much more than clothing. “I wore dresses I found on the shore, in now-empty homes,” she says in the second line, leading into the wearing of culture and cultural disaster. Other lines include “ I wore the muddy water the carried my neighbors’ bodies” and “I wore washed-up Chinese newspapers & Russian bottles” and “I wore the names of my classmates, etched in my arms.” The speaker is encased in the concrete and abstract detritus of this tsunami. The form is particularly appropriate here, its repetitive insistence reproducing in language the effect of inescapable reminders of this event.

The collection contains several poems written in received and more experimental forms—a triolet, a villanelle, a series of haiku, a prose poem. Eden handles each of these forms deftly, and her nonce forms are equally intriguing. It’s as if she wishes that this event could be understood, explained, even accepted if only she could find the right kind of language to contain it. I would discuss each of them if I thought readers would want to spend that much time reading about the poems rather than reading the poems themselves.

Instead, I’ll conclude by devoting attention to the final (and probably most hopeful) poem in the collection, “Baptism.” It describes a literal baptism of a girl named Kaylee in the ocean near Fukuoka. It opens with the pastor already in the ocean, “water dark up to his thighs.” The water this day is quiet, its blue stretching calmly to the horizon, so unlike the water that had washed over cities only a few months earlier. Then the baptism occurs:

                                From the shore,
we, the church, stand holding

our shoes, feet bare
in the sand, waiting. Out east,

new cities will be built.
Inside Kaylee, a renovated

city is filling.
She rises from the water.

So the collection ends, a community rising from the same water that would have destroyed it. This final poem, through its context in this collection, grants extra weight to this baptism. It is not simply a formality, nor a naïve commitment made by an individual, but a choice made by a person within a community that knows how dangerous the world can be. Still, she rises, in full view of her witnesses, as so many have hoped to rise after disaster.

I hope we won’t have to wait too long for Meg Eden’s next collection. I’m eager to hear what else she has to say, and how she will say it.