November 2007

Lesley Wheeler


Lesley Wheeler Lesley Wheeler's chapbook Scholarship Girl is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her second scholarly book, Voicing American Poetry, will be published by Cornell University Press in the spring of 2008. She is also a co-editor with Moira Richards and Rosemary Starace of Letters to the World, an anthology of poems from members of the Women's Poetry List, forthcoming from Red Hen Press. Her poems appear in AGNI, Prairie Schooner, Barrow Street, The National Poetry Review, and other journals, and she is Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
Invisible to You:
A Review of Three Poetry Collections


Compulsions of Silkworms & Bees
by Julianna Baggott
65 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 2007
Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series

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by Karin Gottshall
67 pages
Fordham University Press, 2007
Winner of the 2005–2006 Poets Out Loud Prize

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by Janet Holmes
84 pages
University of Notre Dame Press, 2006

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Northrop Frye refers to the two registers of lyric poetry as "babble" and "doodle." The former term means poetry's obsession with speech and music, its sound structures and recurrent tropes of utterance; the latter word, in contrast, encodes how poetry in print appeals to the visual sense through its design. Various branches of contemporary American poetry affiliate more strongly with one orientation or the other, but most negotiate between these media, conceiving of poetry as an art that must engage both the eye and the ear. Three recent collections—Compulsions of Silkworms & Bees by Julianna Baggott, Crocus by Karin Gottshall, and F2F by Janet Holmes—exploit, to varying degrees, the competition between babble and doodle. In particular, these resonant poems explore how printed verse might materialize not only sound but presence. What capacity, these authors ask, might poetry have to manifest parties invisible to one another: writers and readers, gods and humans, sundered lovers?

Julianna Baggott's Compulsions of Silkworms & Bees, a book with a metaphoric hook on the cover, is centrally concerned with one fateful separation: the gap between writers and readers. Baggott's third poetry collection, selected by Pleiades Press for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series, is profoundly, overtly metapoetic. All of its poems have titles that mock, explain, personify, or exemplify poetry, and they follow through on those promises with gusto. Fourteen pieces set out to answer audience questions such as "Where do you get your ideas?"; many works are named after stock poetic modes ("The Current Events Poem," "An Ars Poetica about Ars Poetica," "The Place Poem"); others concern more famous poets, all male. Her humorless book title notwithstanding, in this collection Baggott seems to speak lightly and wryly, cracking jokes with a critical edge, as when she deconstructs the common comparison of writing to childbirth:

No one ever advises the pregnant woman,
It's like writing a poem. Bear down and breathe." (22)

She is also entertainingly self-deprecating, as when Poetry tells the speaker "that I'm her favorite. It isn't true. Plainly" (51). Occasionally, however, the banter does sound a little too loose. Although "Talking Dirty: The Marketing of Poetry," for instance, is a really funny piece that could be electrifying at an academic poetry reading, and although it cleverly ends by linking its line breaks to little gasps of sexual arousal, its own predictable visual line is rather less than exciting. Some of these poems could be more complex in image and structure without losing their feisty energy.

Many of Baggott's poems do transcend the book's gimmick, however, even while they keep ribbing poetry for its all-too-familiar ploys. "Q and A: Do you Simultaneously Submit?" illustrates how the lyric poem answers questions: obliquely, through metaphor and sensory detail, but also more fully, in some ways, than straightforward speech. This piece turns a po-biz strategy problem into a complicated meditation on publication, how it is both a dirty and a necessary business. Baggott seems to begin on a tangent about a "grandfather who sold Electroluxes in Morgantown," and only replies to her own title in one late couplet, with mock-pathos:

A family to feed, who would knock once and
sit on a single stoop through the bitter winter?

Ultimately, these poems are metapoetic in the best way, for the best reasons: because Baggott adores poetry but can't help assessing its personal failings all too accurately.

Karin Gottshall's debut collection is strikingly different in tone and style. Where Baggott is pragmatic, Gottshall is dream-haunted; one images a classroom full of skeptics, the other a snowy wood full of mystery. Gottshall structures Crocus, winner of the 2005–2006 Poets Out Loud Prize, around tales of metamorphosis and exile, with frequent allusions to fairy tales and children's stories such as Alice in Wonderland. Like Baggott's poetic personae, nonetheless, Gottshall's speakers are explainers of a kind, storytellers who describe lost worlds with details that are often fresh, precise, and perfect. In "Whether," a boy soprano's voice generates an startling visual image:

one note peeled
from the last, fine as paper slipped
from a garlic bulb, veined,
translucent (29)

She sustains the comparison through several more lines, meditating on unlikely correspondences, finding a pungent, tactile corollary for immaterial beauty. Likewise, in "I was in bed all day with the sun,"

a bird unspooled its song in wide,
round loops: drifting off,
coming back. Memory is like that—

The assonant swoop conjures the continuities of bird song and its range of pitches vividly. The business of the poet is to fix sound and presence, lovely but fleeting, into words that endure.

Significantly, Gottshall's recurring invocations of water, weather, and the exquisite natural world are interwoven with references to signs, symbols, and visual representations. Sometimes she directly discusses painting, sketching, photography, and sculpture. Just as often, her landscapes offer up hieroglyphic markings: the "tiny handprints" in the frost of the baby she hopes to have (5); the boy who lives in a tree and reads each leaf "line by line" (9); the stitching of thorn scratches on one's arms or "lace and beadwork across the lake's / breast" (57). All of these partial communications help transform loneliness and loss into wonder and sometimes into mystical ecstasy. Occasionally the gears of exposition clunk as Gotthall shifts between description and interpretation; her free verse is haunted by an anapestic lilt, too, that never quite settles into meter, although this formal in-betweenness might be considered a strength instead of a weakness. Gottshall's work creates an eerie universe in which dreams do carry messages, names have magical power, and the soul can slip free from the body at will.

F2F, Janet Holmes's third collection, both invokes this urgent need for presence and refers to a particularly contemporary kind of technological alienation. Really a book-length poem in interludes rather than a string of independent lyrics, F2F uses the slang of instant messaging to analyze the advantages and perils of being "face to face." Her fragmentary lines, full of white space and word play, sometimes mimic electronic conversation between lovers in contrasting fonts. However, Holmes layers these contemporary exchanges against various mythological attractions and separations, particularly the stories of Eros and Psyche and Orpheus and Eurydice, all of whom came to grief because of their hunger to see. It can be dangerous for women to be "lookers" in any sense, Holmes remembers. Sight can both inspire attraction and destroy it—visual language can both enable communication and maintain distance. Holmes dwells with fascination upon

all those voices
the bodies that claim them (24)

because voice, emanating from one human body and processed by another, nevertheless seems able to transcend embodiment.

This intellectual, allusive volume capitalizes on the parallels between romantic or sexual love and the eros of reading. The first line, "I won't ever know," expresses how print separates poet from audience, but it also suggests the pleasures of disembodied speech. The poet has little control over how her work is received, and for Holmes, that's sexy. As she writes about Dickinson, a frequent emblem in this book for how poets both conceal and reveal themselves through their writing:

volcanoes thunderbolts
kneading winds
in her chamber meanwhile
—The Billows tossed me up—
no reins, all
passion (all senses)—
that's why
the curtain

That's why the curtain: the translation of physical sound into print might entail certain losses, but a little invisibility turns out to be a good thing for poetry.

Instant messaging is a distancing technology, but so is printing, and even writing itself: all of these media enable human voices to carry, in a transformed way, across time and space. These three poets, concerned as they are with philosophical problems, are also writing from and about loneliness. Poetry, they imply, both emerges from and has the potential to conquer isolation. It is probably wise to express skepticism about poetry's usefulness: if it really could reliably connect human beings to each other, to the natural world, or to the sacred, we'd all be living in paradise by now. Nonetheless, the most interesting poets keep testing poetry's power, reaching out to readers through aural and visual strategies, conjuring bridges that just might support their human weight.




Lesley Wheeler: Book Review
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 37The Cortland Review