This is my second time reading this collection, the first being 5 years back in grad school. Last week I re-read and wrote a review for Up to Speed by Rae Armantrout. The second half of this collection salvaged my opinion and enjoyment of this collection ultimately adding the third star to this review. Clearly, not every poem is going to connect with every reader and this was my experience with this collection until I got to the longest included poem, “Ulanova at Forty-Six at Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle.” I found this poem exquisite. The opening section recreates the dance: “Many ways to dance Giselle, but tonight as you/watch you think that she is what art is, creature//who remembers//her every gesture and senses its relation to the time/just a moment before when she did something//close to it//but then everything was different so what she feels/now is the pathos of the difference. Her body//hopping forward//remembers the pathos of the difference. Each/hop is small, but before each landing she has//stepped through//many ghosts.” The poem expertly weaves in prose-poem sections that contemplate the desire to write this very poem, muse on the typical tragedies, and even quote contemporary reviews of the performance, all while reconstructing the dance.
A few other moments stand out when it feels like the poet is speaking from personal experience. [from “Little O“] “When I was young, I tried not to/generalize; I had seen little. At sixty-six,//you have done whatever you do//many times before.” The most vivid, just-shy-of-graphic moment comes in the final poem, “Collector:” “When your stepfather/went broke, you watched as your mother’s//money allowed survival–//It is not release. You watched her pay him/back by multitudinous//daily humiliations. In the back seat of//the car you were terrified as Medea/invented new ways to tell//Jason what he had done to her.”
Finally, I cannot end this without making mention of the single form-poem in the collection [a sestina without the traditional final tercet], “If See No End In Is.” I loved it. Doing a form-poem just to do a form-poem is usually a class exercise these days. However, this poem works beautifully from the opening stanza: “What none knows is when, not if./Now that your life nears its end/when you turn back what you see/is ruin. You think, it is a prison. No,/it is a vast resonating chamber in/which each thing you say or do is//new, but the same. [. . .]” The fourth stanza stands as a supplication: “Familiar spirit, within whose care I grew, within/whose disappointment I twist, may we at last see/by what necessity the double-bind is in the end/the figure for human life, why what we love is/precluded always by something else we love, as if/each no we speak is yes, each yes no.” Who needs a finalizing tercet with the following sixth and final sestet? “Something in you believes that it is not the end./When you wake, sixth grade will start. The finite you know/you fear is infinite: even at eleven, what you love is/what you should not love, which endless bullies in-/tuit unerringly. The future will be different: you cannot see/the end. What none knows is when, not if.”
I regret that more of the collection eluded me, but what spoke to me, moved me.
[Check out my other reviews here.]