Quiet demands

A review of Sarah Gridley's 'Loom'



Sarah Gridley

Omnidawn Publishing 2013, 88 pages, $17.95 ISBN 9781890650780

Cleveland, Ohio, poet Sarah Gridley’s Loom (Omnidawn, 2013), is composed in three sections — “Shadows of the World Appear,” “This Heart is Dependent on the Outside World,” and “Half-Sick of Shadows.” Composed around Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1842 ballad “The Lady of Shalott,” Gridley’s book — one of the strongest poetry collections I’ve seen in some time — opens with a single line on the first page of the first section: “Still the lady could come to her senses. Cool as a nude or a pressed flower.”

Though I admire the greening brass of my dragon-handled
letter opener, it is nowadays better to be paperless.

There are those who said
only something useless can be beautiful.

I won’t say we no more have occasion
to open correspondence

but No servant can serve two masters Luke said.
Thoreau said the perception of beauty

is a moral test — and — How vain it is
to sit down and write

when you have not stood up to live.
Consider the lavatory, Gautier said: can where we shit —

arguably the most useful room in a house —
be beautiful?

As she says in the short interview included with the press release, the inspiration of the Tennyson piece upon her manuscript was, in part, rhythmic:

An act of memorization initiated the work of Loom. The summer of 2006, before leaving Maine to move to Cleveland for my current work at Case Western Reserve University, I decided to memorize Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” — a poem that had haunted me for years. I did the memorization in tandem with a daily walk at a place called Morse Mountain in Phippsburg. The walk was about a mile in length, beginning in the woods, and opening to the Atlantic. The final 1842 version of the poem is 171 lines in length. The majority of the lines have four beats, with the exception of the refrains, which have three. This is a good walking poem. And not a difficult poem to memorize, thanks to its entrancing rhyme scheme and vivid imagery. I had thought to dispense with the haunting sensation this poem gives me by memorizing it, but if anything, committing it to memory only complicated the obsession. George Steiner says of memorization: “What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a pace-maker in the growth and vital complication of our identity.” This was certainly the case with this poem. Through this process of knowing it by heart, I discovered it was acting on me in ways I still did not understand. Its “agency” in my consciousness was much stronger — and stranger — than I’d thought.

Composing the first and third sections as single, extended sequences of short lyric fragments, the finest pieces in the book emerge from the middle section, the nearly thirty-page section of short prose poems that accumulate slowly into a suite of short takes:

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

Ill at ease interposes a preposition into malaise as if to point to an actual place in the mind of translation. Lu Chi in his Fu of 303 AD put the waiting this way: We knock upon silence for an answering music. Everything starts out kicking. Everything dies inside some kind of song. Different musics respond to knocked-on silences: boats in loose percussion with docks — wings that whistle without the form of melody. What if knocking itself could answer knocking. Even the gods had need of a physician. We called the peony after him.

Winner of the 2012 Omnidawn Open Book Prize, Loom is Gridley’s third trade poetry collection, after Weather Eye Open (University of California Press, 2005) and Green is the Orator (University of California Press, 2010). Loom has a magnificent sense of rhythm, one that resonates throughout. Using the Tennyson poem as a stepping-off point, the poems seek out weave and unfurl, carefully working to explore the smallest moments around and between such a well-known Victorian ballad. As she writes in the first section: “What range of tones are possible / in the phrase See for yourself? // It is hard to explain. / Bloom is a noun and bloom is a verb.” Despite the occasional urgency, there is a meditative stillness that emerges through Gridley’s lines, quietly demanding an increased attention. Even more than usual, the reader is forced to listen.