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
(“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:
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
joints, vents moan Gomorrhan refugees
or, from “Lost, Yet”:
Grief knocks the brass
On sleeping doors
Snow fall drifts
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.