First and second books of poems come in two general flavors. The first is an omnibus collection; it shows us a young poet’s series of attempts to find her own way into the craft. If it’s true, as a teacher of mine suggested, that each poem ought to be a revolution against the last written before it, then a first gathering is like the political history of a young nation. It displays the machinations and outcomes—provisional, ephemeral, laudable, or otherwise—of a mind coming into its own. In that way, noteworthy early collections are new in the sense that they innovate, not merely for the fact that they’re recently written. A number of spectacular first and second books have recently followed this pattern: Mary Szybist’s Granted (Alice James, 2003), Chelsey Minnis’s Zirconia and Bad Bad (Fence, 2001; 2007), and Spencer Short’s Tremolo (National Poetry Series; Harper Perennial, 2001), among others. Collections like these, shaped by the principle of concatenation, propose any number of prospective directions that the poet might follow next. They suggest the various ways the poet may continue to refine, replace, and rejuvenate her future work. Like any artist learning to master materials, tools, and tradition, she’ll find her own right way out of the multiplicity of ideas proposed by an apprenticeship; she’ll learn and harness her own temperament, experience, and culture. To swipe a metaphor from the world of science, this kind of collection adheres, since its parts are so elementally different from one another.
The second type of early collection is cohesive, since it gathers poems that are more obviously single-minded in their approach, consistent in terms of subject or style, and organized around a clear and unifying principle. Such books are said to have a “project”: D. A. Powell’s Tea (Wesleyan, 1998), Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox (Norton, 2011), Beth Bachmann’s Temper (AWP Award Series; Pittsburgh, 2009), and other collections that express very clearly, from the outset, what they’re about. I mean to imply no preference between the two varieties. Whereas the adhesive collection pleases a reader with its eclectic and rangy permissiveness, the cohesive collection gratifies our sense that purpose is useful, or that a book’s arc can be an end in itself. Neither impulse is inherently more or less worthy, since either can be an ample provocation.
Having applied this distinction to many early books, I’ve been very pleased to find my way to these three fresh, vibrant, and relevant new releases. These poets have been well recognized and celebrated for their inventiveness and range, and their collections are as disparate as they are accomplished. In examining them together, I’m curious to see whether their adhesive or cohesive approach indicates anything in particular about what they might do next.
Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins (Barnard Women Poets Prize; Norton, 2008) is similar to her first book, Rookery (Crab Orchard Series; Southern Illinois UP, 2012), in that its poems are purposefully cohesive. Generally, though not universally, they share a polyvocal speaker, a first-person-plural narrative or lyric voice; the first-person pronoun “I” makes its first appearance roughly a third of the way into the volume, and a “we” dominates throughout. While some of the poems’ voices are gender-neutral, many appear to address the experience of women in particular, or to speak out of that experience in a collective, choral way.
Originally published in VQR, “Prelude to a Revolution,” among the book’s best and most representative poems, is overtly political, even in its title. Moreover, it’s political in both senses; it’s implicitly rhetorical, and it stems from the aggregate concerns of a body politic. The poem’s speaker(s) are explicitly gendered in the second-person plural; they articulate the concerns of women whose culture is engulfed in the run-up to insurrection. They visit their men by the prison walls, passing hope to the inmates and warnings from them to the larger population: “We go to prison windows and pass cigarettes, tangerines / and iodine through the bars. Anything we think // could heal a man. Assassins kiss our fingers.” The language is somewhere between the surrealist register of a dream and the reportage of someone holding a cell-phone camera outside a woven-wire fence. “They see their deaths in the sweat darkening / our dresses,” she continues:
… They ask if it’s true,
if slaves are chained together on ships to prevent suicide.
We say they’ll never be free.
There’s a give-and-take about hope and suffering running through the poem, which then resolves in a vision of retribution, a wrong to right the wrongs done to the inmates:
… one night soon
the judge will wake to find his bed alive with wasps,
while across town the night watchman will stare stunned
at the moths circling before he realizes he’s on fire.
If W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” or Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” announce the spiritual crises of their respective eras, “Prelude to a Revolution” and other poems throughout Our Lady of the Ruins seem poised to lead the culture into a more acute reckoning with its own moment. It’s impossible to ignore the real-world points of reference for this imagined exchange. We all lived through a tough run of fin de siècle, but poems like this help us nail down the ethereal particulars of the now—especially a “now” spoken from the point of view of those on whom war is passively enacted. In “Prayer to the Deaf Madonna,” for example: “I have to disguise fugitives, to wrap the dead // in flags, to bring the wounded water / and a priest, and I have my country, / I have my country to fear.”
These poems attempt to persuade us of the realness of an experience that Brimhall knows or imagines to be real, while her reader may, as yet, not. The poems are full of animals and fruits, ceremony and grief, sacrifice and celebration, but the world in which these concrete artifacts converge is consistently dreamlike, echoing, and translucent. It’s as though we recognize each poem’s emotional quandaries and tactile images, but can relate to them only in aggregate, using the poems themselves as a medium or screen.
Will Schutt’s Westerly (Yale Series of Younger Poets; Yale UP, 2013), on the other hand, is an adhesive collection. The book revisits a few recurrent themes, most notably, as Carl Phillips mentions in his foreword, privilege. Westerly treats privilege as a fact, not an entitlement; the book riffs on it in a value-neutral way, as if to deny its power by refusing to be self-satisfied in facing it. Jaswinder Bolina’s excellent essay “Writing Like a White Guy” parses privilege as “the condition of not needing to consider what others are forced to consider.” He continues to specify “the privilege of whiteness in America … to speak from a blank slate … to not need to acknowledge wherefrom one speaks,” which is to say, he differentiates privilege as a socioeconomic condition from privilege as a worldview that too often follows that condition. Few American poets from privileged backgrounds have found their way to that subject matter, much less contended with it openly and imaginatively. Schutt, however, has. These poems do not shy away from the facts of their speaker’s actual life, but they relate the details of that life in a way that’s frank, unguarded, and vulnerable. Their candor gives them the rhetorical power of unblinkered vision. These poems address the experience of material well-being without allowing it to dictate their speaker’s aesthetics, ethics, politics, or taste.
Likewise, Westerly speaks out of a profound equanimity toward personal history, American culture, and the idea of poetry itself. The poems exhibit no self-consciousness about spending a summer bumming around the California coast chasing surf (“Golden State Sublet”), and they borrow the callow tone of one who’d pursue that goal without much circumspection:
Each morning kids from Heroica
Nogales or Zacatecoluca or whatever the hell
the oven was they’d shimmied up out of
went door-to-door hawking loaves of bread
their mothers had baked for a buck
while their fathers hit the curb till sundown …
The speaker in the poem—a young man recollected by a somewhat less young version of himself, more compassionate in the act of writing than he had been in his season of chasing waves—notices the situation of these families, but connects it to his own life mostly in retrospect. That is to say, the poem illustrates the fact that he learns. In the moment, though, he’s a sensualist, who instead of engaging his own observations about other people will
… wheel around them
and head off for a dollop of egg fooyung
at the Dollar Chinese or corn grilled
husk-on and served right out in the glare
of the pavement with a lump of paprika
mayonnaise and a wedge of lime. Night after night
a waitress netted our dinner from a fish tank
crowded with bright gorgonian polyp.
The poems also indulge in more extended and nuanced appreciations of New England vacation towns, where, for example, the sublime (Wyeth, the landscape, fresh seafood) commingles cheek-by-jowl with the absurd: Wyeth rip-offs, sentimental takes on landscape, and a pronounced regional tendency toward nautical-themed interiors. In “Transparent Window on a Complex View,” for example, he undertakes the familiar poetic task of naming the real, seeking to find exactly the right description for the morning light—“Brilliant lemon morning”—on the Maine coast:
… On the sill
a Ziploc bag of permanently wet radicchio
we bought at the farmer’s market
from kids in Carhartts who return each year
to tend the horse-powered farm. Apostolic
boredom in their silent straight mouths,
they listen to the chef from the Mexican restaurant
called El El Frijoles sautéing Quorn in soy sauce
Yuma Yellow, the light outside. An unlikely
favorite. Not mine. Fairfield Porter’s.
Until Porter appears, each point of reference in the speaker’s day’s reckoning with color had been infected with the relentlessly twee, bourgeois, and self-conscious trappings of the progressive, artsy rich. Even the Sargentville restaurant, about whose name comment would be superfluous, imposes a sense of the banal, vapid, and pleasant trappings of blue-blood vacation spots. It’s a lot to overcome. He’s not wrestling language alone, slippery in the grasp of anyone who’d use it as a medium for art. He’s also up against a subculture as content with itself as he is discontent with his effort to name what he sees before him. Elsewhere in Westerly, individual poems confront family history (“Rock Maple, White Pine”), America and the myth of America (“Flywheel with Variable Inertia”), and the inanity of pop culture (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”) with equally even-handed, productive, and surprising results.
Remarkably, Westerly also includes a series of translations of Italian poets. To break from the convention of sole authorship in a first collection is to stake a claim about the nature of translation itself—to assert, I mean, that the act of translation goes beyond transliteration and into the generation of a wholly new work. We’re used to monographs of original poems and to volumes of translation, but also to the convention that never the twain shall meet. If the reader approaches these expansions on Eugenio Montale, Alda Merini, and (best) Edoardo Sanguineti affording them the subjectivity Schutt claims for them, they add a layer of self-speaking-through-other that clarifies the argument for the book’s adhesive virtues. The decision to include translations in a first collection demonstrates a commitment to openness of voice and tone. It’s a real victory in a book full of them.
Whereas Schutt’s debut collection gathers disparate strands into a tightly bound weave, the last book in this roundup, Allison Seay’s To See the Queen (Persea, 2013), speaks with one voice, cohesively, from beginning to end. Seay’s poems appear entirely interior, even—paradoxically—when their speaker breaks out of internal narration to address another person as an apostrophe. When a poem speaks to a sister, for example, the voice seems nonetheless to exist entirely within the speaker’s inner life. Many of the poems speak of or to an other—sometimes a beloved, often “the figment” or “Liliana”—who is both within the self and without it, as though the membrane that separates the speaker from the world is porous, indefinite, and unreliable. In “God’s Woods,” for example, cited in whole below, the speaker articulates her uncertainty about the line where she ends and the world begins, or about her ability to apprehend what is real:
The worst part of seeing figments
is not seeing them.
My life is not so hard except for that—alone
in a world which moves around me as a silent film, or is
too far away to touch, or is as a fantasy. I am as distant
to myself as someone I read about
which is to say the worst part
of knowing I exist is not knowing
whether I am or am not a figment.
Darkly but clearly, the poem expresses the situation of perceiving objectively the fact that one’s personality may or may not allow one to remain convinced that one is real, is oneself, and is not someone else. Elsewhere, Seay navigates an emotional landscape of sadness and loss great enough to disrupt their speaker’s sense of the integrity of her perception; at a certain point, this speaker cannot clearly tell the difference between reality and delusion, the fevered dream, or the hallucinatory presence of intense duress.
To See the Queen includes three sections, each describing a distinct stage in the evolution of the relationships between the speaker herself, the foil/figment Liliana, and “the Queen,” a figure who is both maternal and regal, victim and aggressor. The poems struggle with fear, faith, erotic experience, misunderstanding, isolation, and loss; each time the speaker discovers in herself the prospect of exploring her relationship with any of these topics, the “figment” and the mother/other inconsistently help, punish, reward, and abandon her. In “Room of Resignation,” for instance:
I did something she could not forgive.
She did not have enough pity, not even for the sick,
not when I made the bridge inside me collapse.
As I lay at the bottom of the earth, I was worked on
by strangers until I returned.
She was not there though I thought only of her …
The poems maintain their credibility in such broad territory because they so intently notice the particulars of lived life on the micro level. The grass in a courtyard is zoysia, the canes in the meadow bear wineberries, the sister’s eyes resembling no gems but opals. A poet earns the right to engage the larger subject matter only when she tends to these kinds of knitting. Seay resolves her focus at the granular level of emotional and physical perception in order to extrapolate from them without overreaching. It’s a finely calibrated and exquisitely accomplished balancing act.
Tonally, the poems are transparent; Seay tends toward short lines, short stanzas, and an ethereal, windblown mood that indicates the quiet and also exuberant sense of one who has spent enough time inside one’s own life to have arrived at exactly the words to enact it. For example, from “Room of Sleepwalking”:
I was being drawn
creme and black from the mouth up.
Liliana painted my sadness with a flue-black streak
on the canvas where my brain would be.
I understand now it was she this whole time
mixing colors in the sink; she who polished the silver
with a scarf while I slept,
she I heard humming with joy;
and she, lamp-tanned at the bedside while I writhed,
who told me of a lovely other world …
The effect is eloquent, startling, and stark. It quickly seeps into one’s own language, as though the poems describe not only what it’s like to be Allison Seay, but what it’s like to be a person. To See the Queen is the strangest, most beautiful, and most moving first book I’ve read in the last ten years.
In the end, though, ideas of hierarchy fall away, since any comparison between three such different books can only be asserted indirectly. What matters most is their canny and timely address of contemporary life as we experience it. If it’s true, for example, as Brimhall writes in “Somniloquy,” that “a woman’s body is a memory with no language,” we wouldn’t know it except for the language of the poem itself. Admittedly, I haven’t seen Francesco Petrarch’s writing desk, or the way the light falls in slants across his studio, which Schutt describes in the voice of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “didn’t it / move you … the sight / of that little room where the great soul exhaled itself?” But with collections like these, I don’t need to make my way into such little rooms myself. I can take their words for it.