Shamefully, I have only just now discovered Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (Graywolf), winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I had the pleasure of seeing Smith read with the Dark Room Collective in D.C. last spring, and now can add, too, the immense pleasure of encountering her word on the page.
Life on Mars is Smith’s third collection, following Duende and The Body’s Question (both from Graywolf). My experience reading the book was such that it’s hard to know where to start—with the elegant unraveling of sentences, the daring scope that encompasses the intimate and universal, the precision of description. Perhaps it is this incredible breadth that impresses me the most in this text: Smith guides us from upstairs hallway to stars with the same authoritative gaze, which at once wonders at and accepts all of the component parts. To call Smith meditative is true, of course, and this book is at its basis a powerful elegy for her father; her voice also has a note of prophetic vision. Through Smith’s descriptions, we have access to new images of our planet “ticking with mines,” can experience “The Universe as Primal Scream” through an infant screaming through an apartment wall as though reaching for the moment when “the whole building will lift off, and we’ll ride into glory like Elijah.” And Smith doesn’t expect us to simply take her word for it—the book is full of entreaties to join her in her observations and grappling. Look, she reminds us, listen.
When we do, we are thrilled by her disruptions of our expectations. For Smith, it seems that perhaps a barrier between the intimate and the universal doesn’t exist—there is a complex pain induced by both seeing a lover’s dead wife in a picture frame and the beauty of space, a particular kind of human longing that can be measured by a desire for eggs in the morning. In “Song,” she writes of a lover’s hands:
I am trying to decide what they feel when they wake up
And discover my body is near. Before touch.
Pushing off the ledge of the easy quiet dancing between us.
In the sequences, Smith tackles her father’s death more directly, softly meshing together memory with imagination. Her father worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, and I can’t help but think of the book building further on that project: the telescope allowed us to see the universe as never before, and now come Smith’s words to show us even more of it. Smith, as a guide, draws on the scientific and religious with familiarity, but allows revelation to come as easily from lyric reflections and visits from David Bowie or Charlton Heston. In “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Heston asks, “Will you fight to stay alive here, riding the earth/ Toward God-knows-where?” Smith’s book offers a range of possibilities in response, a variety of types of existence, all with confidence that there is divine presence and also extraterrestrial life, perhaps passing by our noses at this moment. Smith asks us to engage in the kind of preparation it seems she has always been making in “The Universe Is a House Party:”
How marvelous you’ve come! We won’t flinch
At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We’ll rise,
Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.
Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.” Read more
See Carmen Gimenez Smith Read Her Work:
27 September 2012 12:00 PM – 1:30 PM Sandy Spring Bank Tent George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
I was introduced to the work of Carmen Giménez Smith by friend and poet Molly Gaudry over at The Lit Pub, for which I am very grateful. Giménez Smith is the author of 3 collections of poetry, as well as a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds. She is the publisher of Noemi Press, editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol, and an assistant professor in the MFA program at New Mexico State University. I am thrilled that So to Speak will be hosting her for a reading during GMU’s Fall for the Book Festival this year on Thursday, 9/27, at noon.
I recently read Giménez Smith’s most recent book of poems, Goodbye, Flicker, winner of the Juniper Prize in Poetry, and was immediately drawn in by the book’s imaginative scenario: a girl escapes into her dreams. As with all good dreams, the girl’s movement in and out of the dreams and characters like Owl Girl is always at stake; the dreams reel from the absurd to the realistic, creating a surreal world in which people may dissolve at will or split in two. Within them, Giménez Smith also pushes on the boundaries of language, condensing her lines too tightly for articles and considering issues of translation. Her poems contain both the lyric and the narrative, bound by abrupt turns that require the confidence of a fairy-tale listener: anything can happen. For instance, she writes in “Thorny”:
A release of birds signals a grand mal
of fireworks because the prince
has come and touched my face.
Face: I mean mask.
Giménez Smith sets the first section of the book as a “pushpull,” a descriptor which could accurately be applied to the tension which she creates throughout the entire collection. She alludes to texts as diverse as the work of Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm, and José Marmol, all the while involving the reader in a struggle with the nature of storytelling and modes of transmission. For example, anachronisms appear present from the blurring of dream and reality, and the use of persona draws our attention to reinterpretations of archetypes, like the figure of the prince as a deadbeat dad. The poem “The Tales She Wrote” evokes a number of such possibilities with a list of the girl’s works, like “Bugs Bunny Kisses the Saint Mary” and “Interior Paint Troll and the Bridge of Unemployment.” This mixing can also be painful, though, as when Bluebeard invites Owl Girl to his home, then serves “voodoo potion” to his guest. The reader observes the rape from a distance, with the poet, through a shadow: “a Punch and Judy fracas etched of clattering hips…/A sickening torque in her narrative, the theft of her late.” These observations of power and the conservative values of fairy tales remind me in many ways of Sexton’s Transformations-era work (see Alicia Ostriker’s excellent article on this, “That Story: Anne Sexton and Her Transformations” from The American Poetry Review). Read more
It’s easy to see why Black Lawrence Press selected Katharine Rauk’s Basil as a finalist in the Black River Chapbook Competition. For a book of 32 pages, Rauk writes with truly impressive variety and breadth. She experiments with a range of forms, from prose poems to short meditations, and incorporates subjects as varied as the number of spiders one is likely to swallow while sleeping to Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey. These diverse poems fit together in part because of their sonic density, marked by frequent repetition and internal rhyme.
In addition, all of her poems, regardless of length or style, rely on the strength of careful, poignant images. As a reader, I trust that Rauk is steering me towards things of beauty, in part because her poems move between these images with little interruption. Although the poems are filled with confidently surreal happenings, the strangeness itself never becomes the focus of the poem—it remains on the clarity of the image. For example, one memorable poem describes a fever as the feeling of a heron sitting on the speaker’s chest. In another, the speaker opens a window to encounter “a sunlight of bees.”
Some of the most interesting poems come when Rauk is in direct conversation with science and art. Her poems imagine the implications of statistics in fascinating ways—what is the effect of living near a high-voltage power line on my teacups? what happens when you blend folk narrative with a field guide on toads? Several poems respond to queries from Neruda’s Book of Questions in kind, posing additional questions which layer rich images on the original. In the ekphrastic poem “Self-Portrait with Monkey,” Rauk navigates the difficulty of possession in relationships by acknowledging the independence of her husband relative to Kahlo’s monkey. And yet, this scene is tinged with the sadness of this perpetual loss: “That’s why/ my womb keeps/ erasing itself.”
As a feminist reader, I am especially interested in this kind of representation of women in Basil. Rauk’s poems often focus on women’s bodies and relationships, presenting a range of images and power dynamics. Their bodies are often inhabited by the same surrealism as Rauk’s landscapes. For example, beetles eating wood are compared to the haunting “channels inside a woman’s body/ where even music gets lost.” Another woman is preoccupied with perpetually sweeping a field of snow inside her own body in “What She Knows.” These images of bodily impossibility create a sense of mystery around these women, even for the women themselves. Read more
In The Requited Distance, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s interpretation of the Icarus myth is not just a revisiting, but a re-inhabiting and a realigning. She has carefully crafted an expanded spectrum on which to plot the story, not only in terms of time, but in a layering of voices which gradually correlate into as close of an explanation as one might present for tragedy. By tracing the path of the father and son from Daedalus’ development as an inventor to a navigation of the afterlife, Griffiths allows the inclusion of their voices and others as harrowing warnings, frames which provide alternative clarities of the events which led to Icarus’ death.
It is here, in this careful attention to character, that the reader begins to collect options and interpretations for grief. Griffiths employs the voices of every conceivable witness to the myth, from a dead nephew to the sea and a fig tree. These speakers express themselves through song, written word, and oral narration. They speak alive and dead, at the gates of heaven and as an eagle over the American desert. His own words reveal the perspective of Daedalus as obsessive in its mechanical outlook and mathematization of all problems, jarringly juxtaposed with Icarus’ world of dream and memory. Thus, we anticipate a collision when this man, who perceives people as skeletal ribcages and treats religion as a proof, encounters a son enchanted by flight.
This disjuncture is further complicated by questions of parenthood and faith. In Griffiths’s world, it is as rational for Greek men to consult James Brown for advice as an oracle; blues singers and artists are sources of definite wisdom. Icarus looks to these sources while his father’s faith in his own inventions reflects a self-glorification, a total confidence in himself as a savior. In this way, the text directly engages with the structure of a Christian trinity; Icarus states, “I am not like Christ,” while working to dismantle the conflation of father and god, as well as father and son. This makes Icarus’ longing for a present father even more poignant – he seeks one in death, a liminal place in which love is possible. Read more
It was a joy to rediscover the work of Alison Stine – her first book of poems, Ohio Violence, fascinated me with its depiction of a Midwestern landscape that many book reviewers have termed “gothic”. Stine’s second book, Wait (U. Wisconsin, 2011), returns to this same territory, but with a different sense of purpose. In these poems, which chronicle the year before a woman’s marriage, we witness a transformation in the narrator’s understanding of the dynamics of gender in the particular setting of the Midwest.
In Stine’s work, the relationship between humans and the natural world is a powerful source of instability. In many instances, the land is an embodied victim of machinery; ponds fear to make a sound in the face of people forever plowing and hunting. The precision of her agricultural descriptions takes these connections beyond a simple predator/prey relationship, however. For example, farmers bury live asparagus stalks to keep them white and pristine. Yet, the natural world creates its own disturbances, as water “slices from the sky” and birds peel bark from the trees. Homes appear fragile against these forces.
The persistence of this instability allows Stine to begin drawing gendered connections across the landscape. In the hands of men, tools inflict pain and create vulnerability, whether through farming equipment scarring the land or a photographer blurring the faces of women in his images. In one vivid example, priests crush the mouth of a statue of the goddess Nefirtiti to prevent her from sharing information. Women are often configured as prey or the constant subject of the male gaze. Women’s bodies fill dresses rather than possessing innate form, and even their own actions preserve their vulnerability, like the bareness of shaving their legs or the exposure of a pregnancy test. Stine draws us to reflect on not only the use of force against women and nature, but also the silencing effects of these actions. Read more