• Naomi Thiers

Poems that Confide, Poems that Shimmer. Review of Bound Stone and Bearing Witness


Colleen Anderson, Bound Stone, Finishing Line Press, 2016, 23 pages, paper.

Claudia Van Gerven, Bearing Witness, Finishing Line Press, 2014, 27 pages, paper.

With so many poetry chapbooks out, it’s reasonable to ask what we should expect to take away from an encounter with one of them. If the poet’s good, we can expect we’ll get some effects with language that will at least delight and—better--move or unsettle us, echoing in our heads for a while. We may begin to hear our own language music. We might look at the ordinary, at least for a few days, as if sheen lies on it.

If a group of poems does these things at least, it’s a great start. Some books—almost anything by Louise Gluck or Phillip Levine come to mind--do more. They pull back the curtain to reveal, baldly, how things really are; they disconcert us and force a stretch. The poems are, as a character in Robertson Davies says poems should be, “a break in the cloud of human nonsense.” They don’t necessarily show the world to be bleak; they might reveal the joy and soundness of the world beneath the nonsense.

I kept these ideas in mind as I read two newish books of poetry by authors I knew nothing about. I read Bound Stone because Grace Cavalieri described it in a review and quoted “Veery,” and I loved the poem. I came across a poem by Claudia Van Gerven in Passager magazine and decided to explore more. Both are poets who have been looking at the world for decades.

Without announcing themselves to cohere around any theme, the poems in Bound Stone mostly explore long-term, knotty friendships and describe the natural world surrounding the speaker. Descriptions of the environment always take a particular approach; they show the way the mindfully experienced, faithfully noted natural world comes inside us, becomes part of our inner arrangement and way of perceiving. The world we’re looking at ignites reflection:

And yet, it isn’t fear. I want to make

it last, this afternoon, this winter ride

through cottonwood and sycamore, beside

the Williams River. I want to take

all I can hold

from all I see: The subtle colors of cold

weather, the lichen and the moss, the way

bare branches form a brittle froth of grey

that deepens into mauve in the mountain’s fold

(“After a Weekend in the Country”)

or helps us cope with grief:

I drive without the radio,

attentive to details, not thinking. I watch

a turkey buzzard quivering over

a bowl of pine and redbud blush,

a cardinal quilting air in front of me.

Not thinking, I say. Not wondering

what I have lost.

I must make it enough: this sun, this slope

of blue phlox, this outcry

of forsythia.

(“The Back Way”)

Anderson’s poems have formal elements, but it’s form that sneaks up on you. Even when a regular rhyme scheme or a form like a pantoum is used, the reader hears it whispering in the background in a way that intensifies the atmosphere. The form never hits you over the ear. Here’s the poem that drew me to the collection:

Veery

When you love, you open your soul

again and again: a strange, spilling music

you think you hear. But who could believe

it is always there? Every morning

again and again: a strange, spilling music,

over coffee, in the garden, walking—

it is always there. Every morning,

every night. It is with you now,

over coffee, in the garden. Walking

in the forest, you are no longer afraid.

Every night it is with you. Now

you listen to hear the veery sing its ode

in the forest. You are no longer afraid.

“Listen, “your grandmother says in a dream.

You listen. To hear the veery sing its ode

to grief! You welcome it inside. You

listen. Your grandmother says in a dream.

“When you love, you open your soul

to grief. You welcome it inside you.”

You think you hear. But who could believe?

Poems in Bearing Witness achieve power less through faithful images of the world or plainsong and more through the friction of sparkling images that—within one poem—bubble up from wildly different image streams. There’s a float-y, fragmented feel to most poems in Van Gerven’s book, even as some use forms and many are ekphrastic. This sense of ethereality comes partly through repeating images of stars, planets, dark skies, vast space, and the like. Weather in its extremes—fog, blizzards, melting glaciers—and how it discounts us tiny humans fascinates Van Gerven. There are wonderful portraits of snow, using weird verbs that made me think, “Huh? Oh no, it’s perfect!” Consider this from “Shut In”:

air battering, a river undamned

the house trembles

floor joists grizzle, windows

hyperventilate

joints, vents moan Gomorrhan refugees

or, from “Lost, Yet”:

Grief knocks the brass

knockers

On sleeping doors

Snow fall drifts

frozen sizzle

Each flake locked

in its perfect self

I’m not sure I’d say the tone is cold, but as well as portraying freeze and distances, these poems keep a sense of distance between the speaker and the scene being described. And definitely between poet and reader. The speaker takes stances—becoming philosophical even about a lighthouse beacon—but there’s almost no “I,” literally, in the poems, only an abstract “we” or “she.” Someone once said that when you read Rilke, you feel like he’s whispering into your ear. Van Gerven’s tone is anti-Rilke in that sense: It never feels as if she’s coming close to reveal something hot-pressing on her that she knows you have also felt. Van Gerven says, Listen in if you like while I muse on this; maybe you’ll get something out of it. Even when the prosody is gorgeous, there’s little intimacy in the address. Yet at times, as in “How We Get Across,” such interesting ideas are expressed (sparked by looking at art) that we’re invited into thinking with the speaker—which might be as delicious as being whispered to:

Bravery is part chivalry

its antique costumes and delicate

beliefs, the way it dresses in the imaginary—

Fear is the insignia, chevroned spangle

of nerves, furred aliveness

to each moment, how the air

changes, how air is never air, but

this breath this breath this breath

Whether you feel invited into or put off by many of Van Gerven’s poems will depend on how much you like poems to be puzzles—or riddles complete with that delighted jolt when you finally see what is being described in code. Or on how much you enjoy bobbing among swirling images and words with no clear meaning to cling to for many readings. Consider the opening of “Chatoyance”:

Gray dawn, Phaeton fallen

collapse of light

We are wandered in Cathedral-dark

its storied windows

citrine and sapphire

Birth cry of every ruby

a suffering the brumous

wilderness of now:

Van Gerven’s distant, philosophical tone contrasts with Anderson’s in Bound Stone. Anderson often beckons her reader: “Listen, there is something like relief/ in this weather: trauma gone to grief” (“Past the Peak”); “Come close; we need each other more, the less/ directly we’re regarded by the sun/ and the long night is on us now.” (“At Winter Solstice”).

Which perhaps means that, just by picking up two new books almost at random, I can offer anyone reading this review a poet who matches your preference –one strong voice for those who like their poems more abstract with a whiff of the stars, and another for readers who prefer clear, earthy poems, with a sense of human connection to the woman singing. Many poems in both books are breaks in the cloud of human nonsense.

Naomi Thiers grew up in Pittsburgh, but her chosen home is Washington-DC/Northern Virginia. She is the author of three books of poetry: Only the Raw Hands Are Heaven (Washington Writers Publishing House), In Yolo County, and She Was a Cathedral (both from Finishing Line Press.) Her poems, fiction, and essays have been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, Colorado Review, Grist, Sojourners, and other magazines. She has taught composition and poetry at universities, schools, and homeless shelters, and works as an editor for Educational Leadership magazine.


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