by Corey Van Landingham
Some Say the Lark, by Jennifer Chang. Alice James Books, 88 pp., $15.95.
Perennial, by Kelly Forsythe. Coffee House Press, 66 pp., $16.95.
Holy Moly Carry Me, by Erika Meitner. BOA Editions, LTD., 108 pp., $17.
Despite some thematic overlap in their treatment of mass shootings, gun culture, and the rearing of children in a country that seems to do little to discourage such violence, these are three wildly discrete books of poetry, three distinctive voices. I’m less interested in comparing them or mining them for similarity than I am in mentioning one other phenomenon I encountered while immersed in these collections. And that phenomenon is the anti-phenomenal. For all the gravitas to be found here—in subject and in tone—the poems of Jennifer Chang, Kelly Forsythe, and Erika Meitner stand apart from pyrotechnics and sensationalism. These are works of great attention that thrive without cheap attention-getting techniques. In a loud year that often felt explosive, I was delighted to spend time with books that hold few flashy tricks, that listen as much as they state.
The title of Jennifer Chang’s Some Say the Lark, its epigraph, and multiple poems throughout are gleaned from Juliet’s insistence (belief? argument? lyric creation?) that “It was the nightingale, and not the lark, / That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear” in an attempt to stave off Romeo’s impending departure. The allusion (and illusion) is a fitting one for this collection, but the voice that looms larger in my ear is that of Coleridge. Indeed, the note to “Mount Pleasant” states that the poem was modeled after “Frost at Midnight.” The poems also incorporate voices of women from the Romantic period—Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft—in significant ways. Still, the Coleridge of “Frost at Midnight,” with his wishes for a youth steeped in nature for his son, his merging, as he does throughout the Conversation poems, of the natural world and language, his slippage of memory and fantasy, image and imagination, is an apt soundtrack, if you will, for Chang’s work. What makes the “Frost at Midnight” seem such an appropriate film fluttering over these poems, however, is their shared attention to silence.
Reticent, spare while encountering the lush language of winter landscapes, Chang’s poems spring from, encounter, and interrogate silence. “My silent habit / is to listen,” she writes, and readers are invited to experience the products of this devoted listening. And some landscapes—external and internal—are better suited to this type of concentration than others, as Coleridge, too, was well aware. Springing from winter woods and backyard gardens, riverbanks and gravesites, the language offered here is that of someone who has made her way through these spaces. “But the best walking is without / reason,” our ambulatory speaker asserts in “We Found the Body of a Young Deer Once.” “Formless, scattering the self / into thinking, more winter.” Wandering and becoming disoriented develop materially here, but also ideologically. Indeed, getting lost is referred to as “craft.”
A stark hesitation develops throughout this collection, one that seems to be wary of language itself as division from the natural world to which it is in thrall. “Were I more horse than rider, I would better understand the beast I am,” claims the speaker in “A Horse Named Never”—a poem that winnows naming from meaning. A dilemma, certainly, for a poet. “There is no meaning in things or words,” Chang writes elsewhere, and “Myself—Be Noon to Him” presents a speaker envious of the natural world for its limited language, its absolute otherness and freedom from human uncertainty and concern.
The burden of description, then, inadequate and tiresome for a speaker who desires more clarity.
In “Freedom in Ohio” (a poem springing from the release of the Zanesville zoo animals, an event with which many poems have engaged with far less nuance and success), the speaker cannot separate thought from danger, desire from being human. Below is the poem in full:
The released animals in this poem seem to mirror many of the lyric utterances in Some Say the Lark: private beings in public spaces. In this regard (in addition, of course, to the wandering mind in natural settings) Chang plays the Romantic. But her refusal to attempt to charm her readers with false epiphany, her ruptured syntax, her meditations on sorrow and failure, break her into an arena truly original.
Chang is especially adroit on the subject of failure. “My yard / is a failure of field,” she writes, and “I’ll never fail like a genius.” But her admittance of and attention to failure never delves into self-pity; it becomes a site of inquiry and yearning. “Is the past a failure, or am I?” addresses the way history fails into the future, how people fail into time. In “The Middle Ages,” the speaker exhibits remarkable self-awareness in scrutinizing the pastoral tradition’s own disappointments:
The emphasis on failure is one that engenders the idea that it could have been otherwise. These poems do not assign failure as fate; they diagnose the world hoping that observation cleaves to transformation.
The failure to elegize, to grieve, and to let go runs alongside iterations of sorrow.
Though dealing with lost lovers, strangers, and landscapes, with dying friends, these poems consistently avoid elegy—there is little acquiescence to the public eye, the descriptive appetite an elegy often assumes. Rather than filling in an absence by elegizing, Chang makes the void itself a subject for rumination. There is little praise to be found. If this sounds bleak, I might reassert that these are poems of deep attention, and that the sorting mind of the poet does not attempt to smooth over the unpleasant. Praise is a form of judgment, whereas negative capability seems rather to be running in Chang’s blood. Chang’s ken, her music, is not relegated, though, to that of the Aeolian harp; despite all the quietude these poems offer, they are also active.
Which is one of the ways Chang reinvigorates the lyric, and comes closer, perhaps, to the oracular or prophetic. The lyric’s sutures to silence often come with an attendant inertia or passivity; Chang herself deems lyric “wild and still.” The mind behind these poems, however, is wonderfully dynamic. Take this scene from the prose poem “Future Snow”:
When I watch two people on stage, I indulge in the belief that everyone is listening. Every word that is spoken makes the speaker more real. Soon she pierces the fearful hollow of my ear, and I am only listening to her. She is misreading the world. She will do this until the world is corrected, or she is. It is night, she insists. A noise from outside tells her so, a meteor exhaling. He disagrees, but what does it matter?
Juliet’s willful perception is transformation, and her language is a catalyst. Silence and loneliness doesn’t mean stasis under Chang’s hand. If, as claimed in “Whoso List to Hunt,” “Thinking is today’s minor captivity,” then the invention of writing, much like Juliet’s “misreading,” may be a manner of escape. “A poem has nothing to do with fact,” the last poem pronounces, “though both are made things.” This making is active, where the mind turning in and around the world produces tangible discourse.
The last section, though, may become too tangible, with its more lucid lyric poems. Part of this is the concreteness of writing about motherhood and city dwelling, as opposed to solitude. The final poems tilt toward more resolution and cohesion, and such new territory removes me from the discrete world in which I’ve been immersed. Perhaps, though, this is the greediness of a reader who enjoys immersion in skillful, intelligent hermeticism.
I find it difficult to write about this book, though it is one I much admire. It’s a difficult book—difficult syntactically, lyrically, emotionally. And though a fashionable, willful strangeness has been running its course in contemporary poetry for some time—poetry that replaces thought with absurdity, meaning with faux-magic, mystique with impenetrability—this book does more than that. It’s a book that resists quotation, as the lines function the way lines in a lyric poem, ideally, should—as palimpsests. As accumulating energy. Structures of sensibility. And Chang’s is a sensibility I want to listen closer to, to shut out other noise for, to sit in the winter field of.
Though Columbine haunts our national conscience in ways that emerge far too concretely year after year, hearing that a collection of poems, in 2018, deals primarily with this event was somewhat shocking. Isn’t this slightly passé? I wondered. A little post factum?
But Forsythe shuttles us back to 1999 with surprising ease. Utilizing a variety of speakers—bystanders and witnesses, students and teachers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, as well as the communal voice of adolescence reacting to the news from afar—this collection immerses the reader in the before and after of chaos. Perennial as a title merges the dim, reoccurring backdrop of violence with the endurance of human tenderness. Unchanging but abiding. Insurmountable yet undying. And, of course, Columbine itself is a perennial—disaster and bloom intersecting throughout these poems. The multiplicity of meanings gathered from and manufactured after that day do not so much settle here, but unwind back to their violent origin (“—which is / to say Columbine, which is / to say many things”).
This friction, beauty and terror, appears again and again, often in the territory of dreams, where the poet’s imagination blends event and apparition. The dream is an apt space for such an encounter, resembling the way that violence seeps into the public and private unconscious. In “A poem in which I am dreaming,” a dream-swept teenage girl is literally reflected back into the disaster, where the school’s hallway turns surreal in the intimacy and violence evoked:
After the speaker envisions throwing herself out a window, the dream-boys lie down next to her. “We watch clouds / to find bear shapes. I can feel us // wanting to hold hands.” There’s something unsettling about even calling these two boys, although of course they are. To imagine such physical tenderness with figures who committed unspeakable violence shows Forsythe’s uncanny empathy, her ability to write into spaces of evil without judgment.
The first poem in the collection begins by mapping the births of Klebold and Harris onto the Colorado landscape:
Rather than the over-lyricization toward which such opening lines might swerve, we’re asked to read these births as natural canvases, sites of possibility gone wrong: the quiet that ends in clapped thunder, the ripples forming before the rapid, the breeze before the windstorm. Forsythe imagines and recreates the world that fostered any teenager into 1999, whether in Colorado or Pennsylvania, whether trench-coat-wearing boys or beglittered girls.
The most haunting poems in Perennial are those that recall the exact minutiae from the lives of those involved in and affected by the Columbine massacre, from the Jenny McCarthy poster in one of the shooters’ bedrooms to the “fingertips cut from a leather / glove in a wastebasket.” Forsythe is especially adept at interweaving the material pleasures of 1990s adolescence with the visceral terror from that specific day. The book feels like a time capsule from the decade, with hemp necklaces and Trapper Keepers, Bonne Bell lip gloss and Limewire. Here is “1999”—one of my favorite poems from the book—in its entirety:
Asking to be absolved from her role as witness, this adolescent speaker conjures a complex guilt. No one—not even a girl thousands of miles away—left that day unaffected, this poem suggests. And no event of this kind contains its guilt within two dead boys.
The routines of a changing body—the binding, the shame—may seem mundane in comparison, but when unfurled from the point of view of one of the Columbine victims in “Emotional Intelligence,” these kinds of girlhood rituals turn from innocent to deadly:
Similar to the book’s prevalent dreams, the repeated imagery of mirrors and reflections recalls a mise en abyme—infinite recurrence continuously fracturing, but also sustaining, the lives presented here.
Such echoing images translate singular event and singular voice into something larger, something louder. In “Call to Action” the communal imperative repeated and implored from the perspective of Klebold and Harris forms a kind of ghostly chorus, one that demands recognition, and calls for naming, for language itself spun into action. The chilling direct address and interrogatives throughout (“Call us rebels. Call us / dark confiscations. Call us to / dinner”; “watch us // needing each other, watch / CNN”; “Will you pay attention / to our trench coats? Will you see // our shifting moods?”) generate a communal antagonism, a forced complicity. “Call us civilians.” The widening lens of guilt, the wake that reaches past Columbine and into each home watching CNN is an especially interesting one, and one that I did not anticipate when first encountering Forsythe’s lovely, sometimes gestural phrasing. The poem also calls attention to the frisson of observing, the entertainment in which mass violence is packaged: “Do you want / to make a movie?” the voices taunt. “Do you / want Spielberg to direct it?”
In “Planner Notes, 7th grade” the speaker—charming, tender—finds her youthful desire transubstantiated into fear post-Columbine:
“We couldn’t touch / each other for fear / of each other’s unknowns,” the poem ends, where anybody, any body, has the potential for violence. Perennial could be apocalyptic-leaning, with poems that have lived through many more school shootings. But Forsythe disarms fear by searching “each other’s unknowns,” by making human boys who have been presented as monstrous, and finding mercy in the dark and tenuous territory of adolescence. There are moments of preciousness that are nearly unavoidable in this realm (“she is suspended over / a lunch tray / it is overflowing with red flowers”), but the poems largely maneuver away from that kind of aestheticized mode to let the strangeness of Columbine’s aftermath do its own haunting. “Homeroom” exhibits in brilliant detail the way those who experienced the day from afar have changed their lives, have turned grief into perception that is both suspicious and affirming. “Please know that we / thought about it” the communal voice pleads.
Any child of the 90s will recognize such noticing, here deftly avoiding nostalgia and the easy group-mourn from afar via the complex scrutiny that reflects a society back to itself.
A poetic magpie, Erica Meitner can write about anything, it seems. Ranging, narrative-driven poems gain great humor and gravitas from the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane. Which is which, however, constantly shifts under her pen. This is a book of German thrash metal bands and Captain Marvel, Cherry Coke and McDonald’s, Facebook and Legos, Bigfoot and Uzis, Voldemort and hashtags. There are Hot Wheels, Hondas, periods, gas stations, car radio, and the DMV. WiFi passwords, graffiti and G-strings, Lebron and Bud Light Lime, Dollar General, CVS, Food Lion, Walmart, Kroger, Burger King, Denny’s and IHOP. Such a list may sound light or flip, but all of this is woven into poems that hold violence quite close. Using environmental and anthropogenic disaster as loci for human intervention, imagination, and compassion, Meitner addresses America in sickness and in health. There is celebration and disdain here, fear and hope.
Whitmanic is, I suppose, an overused adjective for poems that are long and expansive, for poets that lean toward the catalogue, the apostrophic. It’s hard, though, not to conjure him when reading Holy Moly Carry Me, with its sweeping view of a wonderfully diverse array of landscapes and people—Hasidic women and day laborers, Russian mobsters and bag boys, co-eds and biblical characters—and the generosity of its vision. The Levitical law stating “You shall love your / neighbor as yourself” is tried and tested throughout this collection in the various disjunctions and connections of living in a town in the South marked by violence, as described in the third section of “Peregrinus”:
The violences encountered in these poems are not always so acute, so extreme. There are poems that encompass the Holocaust, Newtown, and car crashes, but some of the most insidious violence is that of the every day, the seemingly-mundane hints of racism and poverty incubated in small-town Appalachia.
This is not to suggest, though, that Meitner’s poems enact predictable indictments or judgments, nor that the speaker in these poems easily identifies with the town’s population based merely on proximity. This is a poet with a keen eye for poverty and privilege, and a refreshing self-awareness that is frank without ever being sensational or repenting. Part of this comes from the kind of self-revision seen in the collection’s tour de force, “Dollar General.” Despite their shared location, there are wide experiential gaps between the store patrons. “What are the details I’ve left out? That I’m not // poor. That I’ve never had to buy food / at the Dollar Store at the end of the month.” Class is not the only element of difference experienced here: “I am // neighbor and other. I am a Jew and the mother / of one white and one black son.” Instead of only flagging these discrepancies in identity, Meitner pushes on to implant moments of intimacy and understanding in the midst of her neighborhood:
at the firing range in the distance.
Part confession (of a previous naïveté or assumption, of being shocked by her neighbor’s quick reply) and part social documentation, this section of the poem is exemplary for Meitner’s ethos. Many poets would find an opportunity for a dig here—my backwards neighbors. But the violence is, of course, larger than that, systemic, allowing the very next turn in the poem to be toward statistic: the “over thirty thousand gun // deaths in the United States. Which is to say / there are many people I have compassion for.” We know enough, at this point, to realize this compassion isn’t limited to those specific victims.
This compassion also comes from the panoramic lens of religious texts. The book’s epigraph from The Odyssey initiates such historical and allusive depths. Referring to a magic plant called moly, Homer states “Mortals cannot / uproot it, but the gods can do whatever they like.” Meitner casts judgment aside with the intuition of divine power over humanity, and the seeming randomness inherit in human fate. Not that we shouldn’t be held responsible for our actions, but that there is often a larger net in which we’re ensnared. The phrase “Holy Moly” doesn’t just throw its hands to the sky; it is an utterance of despair and awe, shock and prayer. Like prayer, it is more than gesture. It is reflection. “Holy Moly, if I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Thankfully, Meitner does have love, and it pulses in the most unexpected of places and things (gas stations, fast food, and pregnancy tests), as shown here at the end of “On the Road”:
Her O-spun apostrophes are not fashionable tics, but real markers of praise and wonder. The poems may admit to side-eyes and allow the sacred and profane to comingle, but there’s little irony or satire here. To utter sincerity in a poem that lays bare personal and public disaster and grief may signal a certain cloying quality, but there’s no easy sentimentality to be found in Holy Moly Carry Me. “Post-Game-Day Blessing,” carries in its very title this possibility for ironic adulation. Thankfully, the poem avoids this, maintaining instead a sense of wonder at the benediction of public ritual. Close attention itself is wielded as a form of blessing, as shown in a catalogue of post-game detritus and the awe for the natural world witnessed in a group of schoolchildren. “Bless the black G-string,” the poem begins, on to blessing the “empty / bottles of PBR knocked / on their sides.” She doesn’t stop there—
If the poems can be, elsewhere, slightly glib on occasion, slightly messy, it’s because Meitner—despite the repetition of biblical language throughout, of attempted prayer and the resurrection of hope and compassion in the face of unthinkable violence—never tries to wrench the poems toward epiphany. And if the poems are prophetic, they are so in their documenting of what is as signpost for what may be. In “Continuation,” for instance—a poem with a young child rehearsing how she held her father’s loaded gun—a school bus can be seen as a sign of beauty or a sign of warning:
I’m grateful for the elision of the word “or” (newly-hip, it seems, and pervasive across all modes of poetry) in this simile, for it allows a simultaneity and inclusiveness to the world-changing nature of figurative language. Holy Moly Carry Me is never careless with this responsibility; its readers are in good hands.
Corey Van Landingham, a contributing editor, is the author of Antidote and the recipient of a 2017 NEA fellowship. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, she is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Cincinnati and a book review editor for Kenyon Review.