A review of Jill Magi's 'Slot'
In Slot, Jill Magi asks that we travel with her to those sites where we have instantiated our historical consciousness and regularized its narratives. Part lyric, part excavation, Magi’s work mirrors, in a way, the processes she critiques in offering us this: a new form of articulation, political, collective, lyric. It seems that post-9/11 America has become a place where nuance and deliberation have been systematically effaced in public discourse; instead, knowledge, fact, volume, and the language of officialdom stand between us and our lived experience of history. Dedicated to the city of New York, a reader can certainly understand this work as one assembled in response to post-9/11 discourse, but it is not exclusively so. Instead, Magi makes possible (again? for the first time?) those elements of language, thought, and history that have been banished from our (public) consciousness by the demands of national identity, its retaliatory bravado and compulsion for redemption, however illusory. She states:
Wrenched from the tendency to ignore, I want memory wrenched from the
tendency to protest,
from the ruin of argument, saying,
“Come crowd yourself with me in rooms of the ruin.” (122)
Slot takes us to many “rooms of the ruin,” and Magi’s lyric impulse intertwines with languages designed to inform and to prepare, to frame, and to explain. What the lyric impulse offers this collection is a subtle mishearing, a slip of the language, really. These branchings of official discourse, from an examination of the Rosewood massacre to the disturbingly sensationalized Colonial Williamsburg Escaped Slave Program serve to question our memorializing and to implicate it in our language of the present. In Magi’s work, specters of the past haunt these memorials — both living within their narratives and yet somehow always existing outside of them.
An earlier work, Threads, suggested that the search for authentication inevitably leads to the fraying of narrative (historical, personal, or social), and that the “facts” of history are little more than threads of tissues of knowledge, tiny nodes existing in relation to each other — pieces, photos, letters, scraps. Magi’s process of assemblage, then — in Threads a more personal archaeology, in Slot, a broader cultural (and bibliographical) excavation, perhaps — offers us a new way to approach history and to approach the problematic of the lyric speaker without eschewing the potential of consolation. Her work is, in fact, a form of active remembrance, an opening up of implicit finitude of the process of memorialization. While one can take a walking tour of slave quarters or enter through the gate of a concentration camp, these simulations of authentication mistakenly suggest to the visitor — always nameless, always idealized — that the museum, and its extensions into everyday language, is the repository of true experience rather than its approximation.
The danger Magi sees in the rage to historicize and memorialize rests, in part, in its damaging obedience to the language and logic of capital. The “visitor” of Magi’s long book-length hybrid poem is implicated in this sensationalization to which she objects. “The visitor” is the promissory note and justification of this brand of cultural encounter, a passive accomplice to the rendering palatable of historical tragedy. “Please, no more memorials” one voice says; a phrase echoed in other sections of the book, and it is clear that this mindless consumption of historical narrative (and avoidance of its relation to present conditions) is at the heart of the plea.
Slot incorporates its own bibliography into the body of the text, thus turning the book inside out, and troubling our encounter with it. This form of transparency challenges both the reception of the lyric and its Romantic inheritance and the institutions of collection. While Magi unlinks the airtight logic of the architectural construction of museum space and its inherent social relations, so does she reconfigure knowledge with respect to the poem. Here, the long poem appropriates and incorporates the language of the official tour, in part, by challenging its authority though direct address. Where the tour itself is a kind of singular narrative processed and generated for a group of people, it also advertises its expertise — informational, and, in a way, unquestionable.
Dear Floor Plan:
These three photographs that depict the torture and hanging of Frank Embree
were laced together with a twisted purple thread, so as to unfold like a map.
And those of us who came to look at the fascinating distortions of steel have now
been silenced by that tiny figure —
The museum will be an exemplar of accessibility; it will speak different
it will provide access to our stories through a diverse palette of multimedia
Far more affecting are the unaltered fences and blown-up gas chambers.
Tip: You may camp nearby from April to October. (43)
If, as Foucault notes, the examination is the most obvious expression of the functioning of power, one may read the consistent interruptions of “the survey,” and its related questions accordingly. Not only has historical experience been packaged, or slotted, but also the survey, the questionnaire, the guest book, and the viewing instructions have preconditioned our subjective response and, of course, our exit through the gift shop and the relationship this implies. Magi counters:
More than a structure, what do you feel? More than a sentence. (45)
Magi’s Slot works against these architectures of power and reification — both in the sense of the museum space and the space of the book itself. Where the museum consolidates and narrativizes, Slot offers a polyphony of voices and registers, marginalia, and a subtle mishearing. Bits of song inhabit this unlinked territory, as does personal (private) speech. Black and white documentary photos offer counterpoint to these more synthetic narratives, suggesting, in part, that Slot itself is an artifact that organizes through multiplicity; an altogether different sort of museological encounter.
Slot, likewise, considers the “designed” aspect of experience — architectural, situational, or artistic — and offers a sustained meditation on political exigencies inscribed in public space. Indeed, one can trace the threads of her bibliographic procedure and enter public discourse about the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, or the representational value of the Twin Towers and the inevitable forgetfulness that is preserved in any attempt to memorialize. Indeed, one may watch an unidentified Berliner jumping from stone to stone at the Holocaust Memorial or consider new configurations of trauma with respect to large-scale processes of suffering and mourning.
Slot, then, is an assemblage of site-specific language, and Magi culls this information stream for bits and pieces of escaped / reshaped knowledge, offering us a sensibility that is comprised of both.
“Various cultures conceive of aberrant behavior as hostile and anti-social and
thus miss what is common and everyday about violence.”
Everyday Violence (93)
Here, the effect is one of slowing down; the distilled “Everyday Violence” is repositioned within her text from the citation presumably included in the book After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City, included in her continuing bibliography. The commentary here, as occurs many times throughout the book, offers a subjective response to mitigate structures of information. Insofar as “Everyday Violence” operates categorically, it mirrors the structural logic so prevalent in the museological encounters she includes in her work. Indeed, a reader might imagine this possible title as one of the forms of address listed above: Dear Everyday Violence. That Slot begins to feel like a self-portrait is a surprise, a result of this long poem in conversation with itself, and a testament to the versatility of the work. Just as we are not meant to draw distinctions between “textual elements,” so are we discouraged from separating out the “lyric speaker”; instead, we must view both subject and her environment as one.
In Slot, both subject and environment are conditioned by history and by its growing repositories of official meaning. Despite this seemingly inescapable progression, Magi’s work is redemptive, in its way. It isn’t the redemption of bravado or vengeance, nor is it the redemption of purification or ascension; instead, Magi’s work testifies to the complexities of the here and now, the multivalent utterance of the present. And despite our growing reliance on a louder and/or more streamlined utterance — soundbyte culture and its talking heads or the too pat facticity of a repackaged history — Magi stitches reality out of tissues and silences, slippages and repositionings, thereby restoring the world to its irreparably damaged yet multifarious grammar.
A review of Geoffrey O'Brien's 'Metropole'
“The struggle’s right, the method obsolete,” writes Geoffrey G. O’Brien in his new long poem Metropole. I can’t help but think of this statement as an initial answer to a question important to so many contemporary poets (and one that Metropole engages formally and thematically throughout): now that Language writing as a new and subversive poetic form has been incorporated to a larger degree into the academic world of important prizes and “essential texts,” and the social and economic power structures it sought to disrupt have grown ever more powerful, what does a satisfactory response to both the “new sentence” (as a poetic form) and late capitalism (as a power structure that poetry might want to trouble) look like? Metropole is, perhaps, O’Brien’s fully elaborated answer; it’s one brilliantly conceived and deserving of generous thought.
In his influential 1987 essay “The New Sentence” Ron Silliman proposes to restore the materiality (or status as a culturally produced construct) of prose writing through a new structure that frustrates and thereby renders conscious its reader’s ability to integrate sentences into higher orders of meaning. Silliman cites and approves of Ferrucio Rossi-Landi’s notion that this kind of integration in prose is generally accomplished through syllogistic leaps.
His proposition relies upon, of course, compositions using the “new sentence”: paragraphs of non sequitur sentences organized, like some poetry, according to quantitative rather than logical principles that remind their consumer of her reading as they constantly solicit and reject syllogistic integration. Instead of a paragraph’s length being a product of its ability to, say, describe a scene or thought, each paragraph will, for example, just contain five sentences. In this kind of writing a measure of meaning(s), often a multiplicity of potential meaning(s), can be achieved between adjacent sentences, but they are purged just as quickly by a third sentence that fails to complete the syllogism. As a reader’s will to integration repeatedly advances, fumbles, and retreats within a paragraph form (that she expects will provide a clear, syllogistic progression) she is left with a distinct experience of the integrative process itself, which, Silliman contends, restores the paragraph’s materiality. I want to quickly stress here that Silliman is thinking about integration at the above sentence level: words, clauses, and grammatical structures that form sentences are not as much under contemplation.
Perhaps it is at the sub-sentence level, then, that it makes sense to begin thinking about O’Brien’s Metropole as a departure from this kind of Language writing text. A quick orientation to the poem: it is a thirty-nine-page prose poem, and there are three paragraphs per page each containing between four and six sentences; superficially, it might resemble a “new sentence” composition. To read it, however, is to realize that Metropole has internalized the disjunctive drama of Silliman’s frustrated syllogisms within the sentence unit and that this drama has evolved from mere obstruction into a type of participatory suspension. The following is a line from the beginning of the poem: “The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t come back they’re on now.” This is a fairly simple example of what we can refer to as the “hinge” structure at work in many of the poem’s sentences. I’m going to repeat the line, this time capitalizing the hinge: “The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t COME BACK they’re on now.” The sentence pivots from the scene of a power outage on a subway train to the command to return once the power has come back on through the shared phrase “come back.”
I think it’s interesting to imagine this hinge structure as the formal enactment of a syllogism. If the first clause (“The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t come back”) is the first proposition and the second clause (“come back they’re on now”) is the second proposition, then the entire sentence becomes the conclusion and the hinge word or phrase becomes the combinatory principle. This is not to say, of course, that the original propositions integrate perfectly into a conclusion with one intended meaning. Rather, the completed syllogism performs the unit of time encompassing the power outage and the imperative to return. It cannot fully combine the contradictory states of the power off and the power on; instead it accumulates and displays them both.
The scene becomes more complex as we consider its articulation. “The lights go off in all the subway cars” sounds like straightforward narration. It moves into “they won’t come back,” which is a projection of the narration’s future state, occurring most likely in either speech or internal thought. “Come back they’re on now,” as I mentioned before, sounds like spoken imperative, inaugurating a mutual point of reference between speaker and implied recipients (fellow train riders as well as, possibly, the reader). As we progress between the contradictory states of the lights off and on, we also move between perspectival possibilities of the scene’s expression. Further, the moment of returning power coincides with the imperative to come back; the transformation is from darkness and isolation to illumination and sociability accomplished by the grammatical progression of “come back” from the object of the verb “will not” to the imperative, from the negation of activity to activity.
What I want to illustrate here is that rather than simply suppressing integration in the manner of “new sentences,” the sentence as syllogism in Metropole is able to suspend the time unit between lights off and on as it cycles through possible articulations of that time. It accumulates a fluid sequence of meanings that seem to crystallize briefly even as they churn in transit. It is participatory, then, in that readerly action, residence, and perhaps even accomplishment remain possible. Integration is still deeply felt as artificial, but the sentence’s form, modeling the progress from alienated darkness to public light, affords the reader an opportunity to sustain the syllogism. She is left, certainly, with a complex unit from which meanings might unpredictably protrude, but she is left with those accumulated meanings as well as their tentatively integrated sum. Through poetic form, then, an imagined (and partially integrated) world is achieved.
I’d like, in a bit, to continue thinking about this quote as it compromises and enriches what is probably the other most salient formal feature of Metropole: its streaming iambism (that is, every sentence in the poem is nearly perfectly iambic). First, though, some preliminary thoughts about other meanings of the poem’s prosody. This sentence announces many of them: “Chased around the room at night, the cars of conversation seeking refuge on TV, ideas become impossible to know as anything but raw materials added to a pulse.” O’Brien’s recuperation of iambics in the contemporary and prosaic world of the Western Metropole occupies both the music of tradition and the tradition of colonialism and oppression (“raw materials added to a pulse”). It inhabits both the prosody of Romantic lyricism and the incessant, mnemonic drone of capitalist production and standardization that “chases” conversation into television shows and subsumes ideas within commercial possibilities. The point is, again, that the poem doesn’t make a choice; instead, it models and acknowledges readerly potentialities.
So let’s look again at the scene in the subway car. When the hinge (“come back”) modulates from the object of a statement (“They won’t come back”) to spoken imperative (“come back they’re on now”), the accentual stress alters from iamb to spondee, compromising metrical continuity and providing the reader with the option of either preserving the machinelike drone (that both resulted in the scene’s darkness and also is, remember, the rhythm of iambic song) or asserting speech by the next clause’s human interlocutor. In a very helpful discussion between Keston Sutherland and O’Brien in The Claudius App, Sutherland elaborates his own relationship with a similar kind of action:
The decoupling of enjambment from the verse line in “Metropole” makes for a special indeterminacy, as I experience it. I must decide where the break should fall — a test of pleasure and scruple — so that enjambment can be preserved, but also to keep audible the unique forms of terminal stress that are only ever heard in the first and last words in a verse line … One of the most complex tests of metrical discipline — the one that most often forces enjambment into sentences, promoting them from metrical units in prose to verses — is the occurrence of syllables that I would naturally stress if I were speaking, but that the streaming iambism dictates must not be stressed.
I find this idea particularly interesting because it not only details the attention required to maintain the poem’s prosody (an attention that will likely keep the reader focused on the text’s materiality), but also identifies a site in which readerly choice is essential. When spoken stresses are different from stresses intended by the iambism, the task becomes whether and when to privilege meter over semantic coherence. Sutherland goes on to relate his experience of reconciling such an instance by breaking the sentence into two sets of iambic trimeter, resolving a metrical ambiguity but creating the potential for increased semantic ambiguity. If one chooses to order the scene according to meter, then meaning is distorted (acknowledging, perhaps, the pervertive capacity of colonial violence and capitalist commodification). Vice versa and the rhythm falters, the song ceases.
The poem, though, will offer other chances to make this choice and rereading allows the bestowment of alternate privilege: first I read it prioritizing meter, then I read it prioritizing sense made from a pronunciation based in speech. Importantly, one choice isn’t, in the end, any better than the other and the presence of both options amounts to a kind of pedagogical equality with the poem: it can teach me, I can teach it. Again, the relationship between reader and text thus described is very different from both the “fully referential” prose that Silliman challenges and the “new sentence” compositions that he proposes. Referential prose instructs the reader. “New sentences” frustrate the reader and teach her to mind materiality. Grammatically in these instances, the text is the teaching subject and the reader is the object being taught.
By contrast, the pedagogical equality of Metropole that I’m imagining above manages to also manifest itself grammatically in the poem’s “hinge” syntax. I’m again going to capitalize the “hinge” word: “Let the messed-up sheets record a CHILDISHNESS retains its virtues.” Childishness, the object of the first clause, morphs into the subject of the second. Anthropomorphized sheets demean the narrator as “childish” in a world in which things (in this case sheets) objectify the condition of a human speaker. At the moment of the “hinge,” at the moment (if we resume the analogy of this structure to a syllogism) of the combinatory principle, subjectivity is celebrated and wrested back from the commodification that would make us all into objects. That is, as Metropole sustains and accumulates the world’s variety, a utopian chance at individuality occurs at our point of participation and indefinite integration. The text finally offers a glimmer of liberation.
How, then, does Metropole envision the state of contemporary poetics? The world is now perhaps too chaotic for disjunction and non sequitur to seem revolutionary. Instead, prose that neither fully integrates nor fully obstructs is proposed as a way in which readerly effort, participation and instruction might do more than simply enforce textual materiality. They might also create a site in which poetic form can offer a creative and subjective refuge from capitalist uniformity. The text that wants to transcend art and enter the realm of the historical (the “new sentence” desire to reformulate prose on a national (global) scale, moving from an aesthetic object to a historical one) now appears an impossibility if not also a naïve sacrifice of the more intimate freedoms participatory art can afford us. Additionally, the dialogue of historical forms proposed by avant “new sentence” restoration of external verse traditions to experimental prose is more fully elaborated by a form (iambic prose) explicitly defined by this irresolvable dialogue than one (“new sentences”) sporadically informed by it. Where “new sentence” composition employs formal duality toward seductively disjunctive ends, Metropole intentionally renders a conversation about the historical deployment of traditional forms. Again, the emphasis for O’Brien is on communication and analysis; the world seems mutable and beguiling enough on its own.
As a closing I’d like to quickly consider the very short lyric “To Be Read in Either Direction” that precedes Metropole. As the title indicates, “To Be Read In Either Direction” can be read coherently beginning with the first line and reading down or beginning with the last line and reading up; the action is similar to the hinge syntax in Metropole that moves fluidly between clauses. If we continue the analogy of the syllogism to “To Be Read In Either Direction” then the first proposition would be reading the poem forward and the second proposition would be reading the poem backward. The conclusion and the combinatory principle become one and the same site: the poem in its entirety. That is, to engage the poem is to reside in the moment of combination, in a moment of duality that, by its very nature, is impossible to objectify.
A review of Jefferson Carter's 'Get Serious'
After eight collections of poetry, a poet usually arrives at a point when a “new and selected” is a natural, a given, if not something of an earned entitlement; a milestone in any case. This is no less true for Jefferson Carter’s Get Serious, a gathering of the best of a poetry that is as original as conditions of originality permit, so much so it seems to stand alone, like a night club in a cemetery.
What allows for this is an architecture so consistent and noticeable it might be called Carterian — a muscular, sharp-edged concision of cropped allusion, unexpected Martianesque references, Taser-like in their effect, often packed into a Euclidian block, a vertical rectangle. The experience is similar to entering a Scandinavian furniture store, austere and sparse, then having the back wall fall away — that vertical rectangle — becoming a portal to another biosphere. Typical of this unique aggregation is “Pasture”:
To a narcissist, all
the world’s a mirror.
The day I misread
the no trespassing sign
in the laundromat window
as no trepanning, I retired
from narcissism. I stopped
worrying about my headaches.
I’m not so lonely now
& even a goat isn’t just
a goat. I told my neighbor
my lawn’s a pasture & today
I saw a herd, fainting goats
he calls them, grazing there.
These poems, consistent with others that form Carter’s oeuvre, hold promise for a wide literary readership if for no other reason than they offer an alternative that has immediate appeal, and occupies its own territory. They may even be said to bridge the distance between a literary populism claimed (in one way or another) by “New” Formalism that never seemed to have actually occurred (owing to its own nineteenth-century strictures that exclude the more absurd details of contemporary conditions) and literary extremes like those oblique assemblages of language and letter-art bricolage used to produce objects simply as objects, to remain intentionally unreadable in any conventional sense.
The speakers in Carter’s poems are overwhelmed souls, so confounded by the ridiculous, they can only find solace in a bewilderment that consoles through the otherwise unnoticed, the ordinary, a consolation that is wry, amusing, and endearing, like a discovery of “a school for famous readers” from the sound of sow bugs in a shower:
Writing in the Shower
I wanted something
Eastern European, you know,
in the best sense of the word,
but what I managed was
two lines of Southwestern
animal husbandry, half
a simile comparing
something wet to a teaser
stallion on a stud farm
& I was too busy
to mention the sow bugs
in the shower stall,
which echoed like a school
for famous readers.
Carter’s poetry could have easily slid sideways into esoteric extremism — the current pressures are all there — or become another casualty in the landfill of the all-too-dense poetry that attempts to describe itself throughout so many poets’ careers, or sink into the mordantly oblique, but it has found its own re-formation among what has either been impulsively discarded or ignored by others, making itself necessary to an understanding of emerging sensibilities that, science tells us, are in a perpetual state of progressive development.
This, and a knowing laughter, humane and caring, necessary to enduring the worst of our tragedies — the laughter of Calvino, or what Hesse attributed to those magnanimous souls in his literary and musical panthéon — constitute a contribution to the enterprise of the poetry of our era. Above all, this collection is a notable contribution to the evolution of poetic consciousness.
Wrapped in my blue & white-striped
100% Egyptian cotton bed sheet,
I skulk in the vestibule. What a word —
ves.ti.bule, the last syllable
like breathing on a mirror. I overheard
two girls laughing about their teacher
arrested taking out the garbage
in his underwear. I say more power
to him. I’ll say to those girls the night
I catch them, have a little mercy.
Mercy, a word that sounds
like someone swallowing flowers.
A review of Anthony Lynch's 'Night Train'
Night Train is Anthony Lynch’s first book of poetry, and it comes with a small list of weighty names in its acknowledgements. This promises to be poetry that has been carefully hefted, sifted, culled, and considered. In addition, Anthony Lynch is not only a fine short story writer, but is himself a professional editor and a publisher of poetry. To know what you are doing can be a dangerous starting point for a poet and for poetry, so it is with relief that I found the last line of the first poem suggesting “To drown well is art.”
This first poem has the openness of free verse, the kind of short-lined free verse where missteps are quickly exposed. It has the formality of three-line stanzas and a faintly self-mocking tone as it takes us through references to a Mandelbrot set, a climatologist’s beard, the after-rain songs of birds, and a brief theory of puddles via a dog (summed up in the phrase above). The lines are beautifully paced down the page, sometimes in a phrase so expertly handled you have to stop (“on a nub of hill”) and the whole carries a voice that’s interesting already. The first section, “Topography,” introduces the reader to landscape, weather, animals, and a faux-scientific vision that either accepts drowning “well” or aspires to that condition. This poetry can walk us vigorously across a farming landscape, alert us to the slaughter that is part of farming as well as those compromised versions of nature that go to constitute farming country (foxes, rats, genetically modified canola, hares, invading bees). The poet is there with us, simply, and we trust him, while the poetry continues in its steady short lines that pace themselves with steps that don’t stretch the breath but feel alive mostly because of the liveliness of the mind that subjects itself to the compact diction of the poetry: a sheep unplugged by a fox; a mop squeezed out in the sky; an octopus of hose; dumbstruck shirts on the clothesline; a pelican that “jumbos over the bay”; and in a train, “upon reflection, the dark windows clone you.” These images I have almost randomly chosen, for the arresting moments are so frequent that it takes more than one reading to catch them all.
In the second section of the book, more concretely titled “Interiors,” there is a closer world of sex, love, domesticity, personal rivalries, and depression, with shifting moods in the phrases that are so condensed, again, you have to stop to savor them:
The past exits the back door
where pot plants do their time.
Lynch does what the best poets do: he inhabits whatever he describes. You feel he has learned something important for himself from Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath without ignoring William Carlos Williams. Brendan Ryan’s and Laurie Duggan’s regional poetry forms a sympathetic spirit close to this poetry too.
The final section, “Splitting Space,” develops notes of urgency alongside a more open humor. The violence of the duck season, addressed jokingly to the ducks (“come be my quilt / or quill”) is expressed with what seems carelessness of tone after the early poems. It is as if almost any image will do as long as it breaks away from expectations, even from poetry, for the questions about violence must take precedence even over the poetry. A caustic vision takes over: Christmas is summed up with “the bonbons a reliable bad joke.” His black humor becomes reliable as he observes mercilessly the demented and the crippled. Nine people die on the final night train in the book. The subliminal expression of violence in this poet’s surname comes to my mind at the end. It is as if he is giving himself up to himself, though Saint Anthony, the orator who knew with devilish skill how language works, is there too. If this third section is more recent poetry, then the reckless urgency coursing through it is a good sign for the next book from this poet.
Mostly this is a poetry of observation rather than sentiment. The “inhabiting” always carries with it ideas and attitudes that won’t let you, or the things observed, alone:
All too strange
or too familiar, we can’t decide
Sean O’Brien, the British poet and novelist, speaks of the unreasonable reason that must be present in the best poetry. It is there in Anthony Lynch’s. It is this stance of the thinker-observer that makes the themes of forgiveness, violence, of “want and consent” shine through when they’re glimpsed. You realize they have been all over the poetry from the beginning while the brilliant visuals have kept you entertained. The violence is not, of course, simply there because it happens to be part of the panorama, a daily thing. That would be one attitude to take. Lynch notes the violence of the mundane has been called the stark reality of day, in order for his poetry to show that phrase up for the stale cliché it is. It is the “bigness of things” he shows us, and mostly through his small, brilliant details. His poetry drowns well in its final image of a library of all possible faces.
A review of Rachel Tzvia Back's 'A Messenger Comes'
In Rachel Tzvia Back’s collection of poems A Messenger Comes (Singing Horse Press, 2012), the poet, like a biblical Deborah bearing a torch, arrives to illuminate the dark, devastated, and devastating space of grief. Following the deaths of both her father and sister, the poet is spiritually “called” to apply language to mourning. This calling is revealed in the epigraph to Messenger, a passage from Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish, the profound elegiac work for his own father, which also gives the collection its title: “A messenger comes to the mourner’s house. ‘Come,’ says the messenger, ‘you are needed.’ ‘I cannot come,’ says the mourner: ‘My spirit is broken.’ ‘That is why you are needed,’ says the messenger.” In the first section of poems, “The Broken Beginning,” the poet imagines grief and grief’s counterpoint, love, being formed with the creation of the world itself:
(In the beginning)
In the beginning
it was sudden —
all at once
out of formless void —
of the infinite
into pieces — God
to make way
for perfect human
Adam and Eve
in the beginning
of a world that wasn’t
and wasn’t yet
broken either (13)
The poet must pave a way through the world after it, and she, are “broken” — after grief has befallen humanity inescapably: “Thus the sudden rift / opens // to define us — After and / then // Before” (66).
Many themes of Messenger — among them Judaism, the Bible, Israel, and Hebrew — are prominent in Back’s past collections, On Ruins and Return (Shearsman Books, 2007), The Buffalo Poems (Duration Press, 2003), Azimuth (Sheep Meadow Press, 2000), and Litany (Meow Press, 1995). Back was raised in Buffalo, New York, and studied at Yale and Temple universities, but has been living in Israel for three decades. Her work is thereby dually informed by American traditions (Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Adrienne Rich make appearances in Messenger), and Israeli ones. In an interview, Back has discussed the complexities of her choice to reside in Israel: “I have a great passion for Israel, even now — a passion for the Israeli landscapes and sensibility, for the rhythms of the Hebrew language, for the ancientness of the culture, and its raw newness too. My heart feels most connected to itself in Israel — I feel most myself there.” Indeed, Israel, Jewishness, and Hebrew permeate Messenger; for instance, in an image of olive trees (55); in a poem that enumerates the names of sacred Jewish texts, some invented by the poet herself (51); and in a poem which meditates on her father’s passing using the English letters a-b-a, which join in the last line to spell the word Aba: “father” in Hebrew (39).
Back’s work has long been engaged in and concerned with the atrocities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Andrew Mossin writes in his 2008 review of On Ruins and Return, Back has sought to bring a new mode of “seeing” to this conflict. Her poems, in the tradition of women poets of witness, such as Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Carolyn Forché, and Alicia Ostriker, frequently juxtapose the personal and political. In On Ruins and Return, this is achieved when the lyrical “I” is used in the service of describing a disputed, embattled land: “I live on the ruins of Palestine.” Sporadic references to conflicts of the region also appear in Messenger. In a passage from the long poem “Lamentation,” the poet writes about a dream in which her elderly father climbs “a grove of old olives” atop “the wounded land”:
(21) Dream inquiry (2)
pillagers have gathered
stones from the wounded land in
their angry hands and when
they raise weapons for harm
my father lifts both his arms
into the unblemished blue
spreading white woven wings
over us all
in the ancient grove
still through the wings even
he’s gone. (55)
As her father morphs into a white bird, presumably a dove, spreading his wings “over us all,” the poet thus envisions his spirit bestowing peace to country that is torn, but their home nonetheless.
In Messenger, however, the poet primarily writes of grieving in a way that is personal, rather than political:
Every moment of every day and
Every night I am
Besieged by grief
Closed to any loss but my own. (97)
The last lines of this poem (from the section “Elegy Fragments”), display a turning inwards, away from the Other, following the poet’s terrible loss. In Messenger, the poet’s sense of self is so utterly shaken, shattered, that she writes (in another section of “Lamentation”) of being embodied by loss — “at” and “in” loss:
Cut loose (not
yet) we are
The series of enjambments affirm the harsh rupturing of the poet’s selfhood and the life that was known to her. With the use of the plural “we,” she reminds us that while this rupturing can be shared to some extent, we must cope with its impact alone; in the case of Messenger, through a dialogue with one’s own poems. Though the poet certainly never addresses a higher religious authority (such as God), the incantatory poems are forms of "secular" prayers in themselves.
The poet’s father and sister occupy their own sections in the collection, highlighting the individual significance of each. In the first sections of Messenger, the poet writes of her father, depicting him as larger than life: “Six feet tall broad and bearded / traveling a world / (in a hospital bed) // professor and scientist / (huddled under / the covers)” (40). In a later poem, Back writes of his “wide-armed gestures, voluminous / stories detailing each / memory in grand trajectories / of arced blossoms” (65). In the final section, “Elegy Fragments,” Messenger turns to the early passing of the poet’s sister: “My sister died / in mid-summer, in the middle // of the night, in the middle / of her life” (87). In a subsequent fragment, the poet revisits the notion of shattering, or coming apart, which is so prevalent in the collection: “Steadfast / sister, there is steady / unravelment / in the vastness of your / absence” (89). Back courageously writes of the longing, even guilt, that can accompany the death of someone beloved, “How I try, and fail / to return you to us // in every word and verse / ever faltering —” (90). Although the poet cannot write her sister (or father) back to life, solace is found in the vision of her sister (like her father) as a bird:
Sometimes in the birds’ flash
of white-winged flight
I think I see you
your lovely name
in that winged instant written
across all the skies (100)
As is often the case in Back’s poetry, layers of meaning are revealed with a knowledge of Hebrew; here, the twice-repeated word “delicate” (perhaps echoing the birds’ wings flapping), is the English translation of her sister’s name, Adina, to whom the section, and the book in its entirety, is dedicated. Thus, Adina’s memory inheres in English and Hebrew, the two languages from which so much of Back’s writing springs. In the last elegy fragment, we thankfully encounter not a contrived notion of grief’s finality, but a recognition of its perpetuity:
As though I am not
in Secret and
with every breath
Waiting for your return. (101)
Readers are advised to explore the moving, well-executed poems of A Messenger Comes. If the book begins with the poet being called, Messenger is a remarkable answer to this call. By hearing Back’s words, we become braver in the face of our own grief, as well as love, two sentiments the collection wonderfully articulates: “Enduring / love: How // is it to be endured / in your absence” (93).