by Corey Van Landingham
Ridiculous Light, by Valencia Robin. Persea Books, 56 pp., $15.95.
Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, by Keith S. Wilson. Copper Canyon Press, 65 pp., $16.00.
The Low Passions, by Anders Carlson-Wee. W.W. Norton & Company, 80 pp., $26.95.
In an industry that increasingly prizes the young, praises the ingenue who steps, anointed, into the new fashion they have fashioned, such youth, such novelty, can begin to blur together. “Didn’t I already read this book?” I’ll find myself wondering, encountering a press’s latest darling. Familiar, the shard-like fragmentation, the catalogic structure, the “____” of “____,” the “how this” and “how that.” First books can resemble that first canvas against which paint is thrown—imprints of an MFA program, an imitation assignment, an echo chamber of contemporary voices, “after” after “after.” Experimentation is mistaken for vision, difficulty for intellect. Not that experimentation and difficulty aren’t markers of successful poems, successful books. Rather, debuts often confuse finding a new way to say for having something to say.
“Originality,” writes Louise Glück, “depends on the creation of repeatable effects.” Her essay “American Originality”—first published by The Threepenny Review in 2001—traces the oddly imitable effects and repercussions of what is seen, in American poetry, as fresh. Originality is the “highest praise” in this country, Glück asserts, but that crown is often reserved for and associated with “formal innovation of almost any kind” which is “valued over idiosyncratic mind.” Such work produces “an aesthetic commodity, a set of gestures instantly apprehended as new and also capable of replication.” This new, gestural form creates its own audience, consumers, and reproducers, whereas a truly unique voice—one that cannot be flattened into imitation—is not folded quite so neatly into the future.
All of this invites some important questions: who arbitrates original thought? How can a reading public properly recognize a unique voice without commodifying it into duplication? Can’t formal innovation accompany, even foster, those inimitable voices? Is poetry that registers as anachronistic acting as a conservative response to formal experimentation, or the site of a singular mind untethered to recent mannerism? Blanket statements cannot, of course, cover our wonderfully diverse poetry culture. What I know is this: the following debut collections are, to my eye and ear, resisting easily catchy and recognizably popular poetic modes. Because of this, these first books by Valencia Robin, Keith S. Wilson, and Anders Carlson-Wee stand out not for showy formal techniques, but for minds and voices that are remarkably distinct and distinguishable from their peers.
Persea deserves much credit for cutting against the grain of its recent editorial history (that of publishing primarily young, white women) with the selection of Valencia Robin’s Ridiculous Light for the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry. This is not an ostentatious book. Its poems are left-aligned and mostly employ one long stanza or even-lined couplets. There are heavy doses of narrative running into these lyrics—an apparent desire for clarity, for sense-making. None of the usual debut monikers—no self-portraits! And while the voice in this collection is consistent, with reemerging concerns and sets of language, there is no designated project behind this book. It is, indeed, a collection. Perhaps some of the resistance to trendier forms and styles comes from gleaned artistic, worldly experience—Robin received an MFA in Art & Design before beginning her MFA in Creative Writing. The poems in Ridiculous Light accompany and accentuate a wisdom that seems already-arrived, sets of knowledge that feel fully formed. This is not to say, in any sense, that Robin’s work feels didactic or dull. Quite the opposite. The wonder that runs throughout this book is wonderfully unexpected. In a book of divorce, of a neighbor’s son killed in Vietnam, of being passed over as a young black woman in a mostly white junior high school, of “the dark days of assassinations,” of white flight, of the weariness experienced inside capitalism—in a book including such moments of darkness, this is largely a book of beauty, a book of hope.
I know what you might be thinking. Hope. Right. That poems attached to that word may come across as too easy, may seem naïve in 2019, may lack some sort of texture. That the poems could seem like even more Ross Gay rip-offs. I had my moments of skepticism as well. Encountering the poem “This poem is not about Facebook” (with the attendant tag after the title —for the 2017 Women’s March), I feared the language of inaugurations, of the occasional poem locked in simple praise. “O poets like family, O friend / of a friend wishing your Peaches a happy birthday, / praising Jesus, praying for the Green Bay Packers.” Uh-oh. But Robin is too canny for the poem to go where I thought it was going (the well-worn, ode-like apostrophic catalogue), too wise not to draw back and begin “wondering why / we’re not afraid, why some people can walk on the moon / and never leave home while others are born waving the wrong flag.” It’s praise for a day “without car bombs,” where the speaker remembers “what I should never forget”—partly withheld, but having to do with the complexity and violence of history, as well as with a multiplicity of selves. For all the possibility of the day—“I watch millions marching like it’s 1963”—the last line of the poem deems “none of it magic.” No epiphanic ending allowed here.
For a quieter poem that produces similar layers of despair and optimism, I’ll include “Insomnia” in full:
In one of the handful of poems in this book that comes from a place of weariness, Robin makes sure not to conflate work weariness with world weariness. Allowing “making a living” to dull the senses beyond recognition would be to relinquish power to an economic structure that seeks to do just that. So the “dumb luck” at the poem’s end becomes one small-yet-thorny note of resistance, the “Sweet” ringing out and out, even in its interrogative formulation and hesitation.
There are a few gestures that do feel familiar here, such as the seemingly off-handed, quotidian opening of poems with “Some days” and “Sometimes” and “There are certain days.” A couple poems are somewhat forgettable and don’t step outside of their incipient situation to form new knowledge, to arrive at surprising language, to allow the speaker or the poem or the reader a sense of being changed. But I admire the ability of a poet to so nimbly walk the line of preciousness and precarity, as well as Robin’s attendant self-awareness. “Late Spring” begins with a line that could speak back to many of the poems that have come before it: “It can’t all be wild ginger and cherry blossoms.” And in this very poem is the tensest moment in the entire book, for here Robin allows full observation and dramatization of a setting of possible disaster. War, race, and economics are mentioned throughout these pages, but they often come in as asides, as reminders of danger and systems of inequality outside the poetic moment. “Late Spring,” however, immerses us in a scene where there’s
The speaker reminds herself, again, while walking on her “favorite trail” that “it’s not all prairie sedge and lilac bushes / a father is a man, not a leaf blade unfurling, / not a patch of skunk cabbage or culver’s root.” She will not, that is, allow herself to obscure this threatening situation with selective vision. She will not allow herself to turn away from this seemingly small, potential violence. What’s so successful, though, is that this self-conscious maneuvering within the poem, that negation of pretty botanical imagery, also works to build suspense, to swerve our vision from the escalating scene, the father’s loss of patience, to her own poetic framing. Then we cut back. “The man—oblivious / to me, the other walkers, the tall shoots of what looks like poppy, / he takes a step—one step—and the dog jumps.” The tension is almost unbearable, in the halting asides. And we’re made, as readers, to endure even more time with that dog suspended, as we’re asked “Is the air holding its breath, or is the water?”
“The dog is fine,” we learn two lines later, but how terrible the clauses before that safety. The poem doesn’t rest there, though. Robin’s keen, skillful observation takes her back to the two human figures waiting on the hill. “And the boy, his son?” the speaker reminds herself, reflecting on the other witness. “The look in his face / never changes, though it’s the opposite of a look really, / perhaps as far from a look as a face can get. Not even blank.” For so many poems circulating now that catalogue, diagnose, and dramatize violence and disaster, this seemingly smaller, more pianissimo witness feels momentously, horribly charged. I’ll remember and teach this poem for a long time.
I had encountered many of the poems from Keith S. Wilson’s Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love individually, when they were first published, with flashes of relief—they felt different than what surrounded them in literary journals. These poems wanted something, were full of desire to test human limits, to expand the self and its boundaries, to address fathers and lovers in a new terrain, to interrogate systems of beauty and systems of racism while still being open to wonder.
There are many collections of poetry that perplex me, in the sense that the poems are either far too oblique (is meaning-making actually occurring, or is difficulty obscuring the lack of real thought?) or far too explicit in their demands (heaped agendas, lack of self-awareness). And I admit to feeling, initially, somewhat baffled by this collection, though this certainly wasn’t an unproductive confusion. It may be that, though the poems themselves invite slow, careful reading, the progression from poem to poem feels a bit breakneck: here we’re exploring the cosmos; here we’re locked inside a figure in a painting; here we’re recalling a childhood memory; here we’re uncovering the hypervisibility and invisibility of blackness; here we’re lamenting a lost lover. It took a few reads for all of this to coalesce. But that may be my own shortcoming as a reader, my own expectations of what a book of poetry—especially a debut—can contain. There aren’t all that many recent books that offer stunning ventures in ekphrasis alongside racial violence, a sonnet-like contention with a father alongside a defense of pigeons. Fieldnotes ranges across worlds, subjects, and registers in an exciting way, making me reconceive some of my assumptions about the narrowing of much contemporary poetry.
Part of this ranginess, and surprise, has to do with the title and the progression of the book. There is no poem in the collection titled “Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love,” but there is a long, sectioned poem called “Fieldnotes.” That poem moves between personal and historical moments of injustice—it is an exploration of color (whiteness, blackness, the spaces in-between) that derives its power from juxtaposing direct statement (“the way whiteness too / is often rhetorical”; “whiteness is an alibi”) with insinuation and what goes unsaid, as in section 10 of the poem, where the speaker and his girlfriend are pulled over by a cop:
Is this moment, this love, ordinary? The book’s expanded title demands this question. It also seems a significant choice that we do not begin with this poem, but with an aubade. “Aubade to Collapsed Star” is full of regret, full of longing and melancholy. “I ought to have married you / against the ifs of this world,” the speaker laments. “Each movement / I have missed like this.” The lover is conflated with that titular star, which feels much more than a surrealist exercise, partially because of the liminal space between sleeping and waking, dreaming and reality. There’s great metaphorical potential in the title—for the poem and for the collection itself. Let me consult NASA on this celestial matter: “In collapsed stars, matter has been pushed to the limit. Internal pressures produced by nuclear power production in the centers of stars are no longer important, because the nuclear fuel has been exhausted.” What fitting language for what seems like the stilled moment before a breakup, before some unstated interior, domestic implosion. Matter has been pushed to the limit. Fuel has been exhausted. This first poem immediately unsettles in its direct address, its withheld narrative, its collision of high and low, its clipped, fragmented, halting syntax (“Your breath. // My limbs and yours. All of space / cannot be space.”). Such syntax underscores that exhaustion that’s led to this collapse.
That exhaustion extends through the romantic relationship into family relationships and larger societal relationships throughout these poems. The idea of “fieldnotes” becomes omnivorous—so much vast material is observed and investigated here through a lens that is as full of critique as it is wonder. But “love” is just as tenuous, as witnessed in “The Way I Hold My Hands.” Here’s the poem in its entirety:
In a Hayden-esque intermingling of fatherly tenderness and violence (and the circumstances in which they’re bred), Wilson forces together personal memory and family history. The threatening moment—“I’ll give you something / to cry about”—nestled between the intimate space of a father reading to his child. What’s so successful about this poem is how the woven memories gesture to a kind of learned violence, how masculinity and paternity are inscribed through and by generations. We’re left to imagine how the speaker himself may manifest and reproduce these inherited forms of violence—physical and linguistic.
While the insidious nature of masculinity is handled deftly here, a poem like “Scrapbook” labors to perform a kind of wokeness that is disappointing after so many complex explorations of self and other. Calling out myth to decry sexism seems overdone. Easy, perhaps. There are moments of promise here, as in the following lines and their merging of criticism and empathy:
This approach to questions of power is nuanced and difficult; it’s a voice and statement I can learn from. Elsewhere, though, gender relations are simplified (“or a man, calling himself sisyphus, knocks / and says push is a man’s verb // but she can help”). Here are the poem’s final sections:
An old story indeed. Wilson is self-aware, of course, but the poem doesn’t surpass that nod toward self-awareness, doesn’t do much with the interesting possibility of complicity in this kind of silencing.
My disappointment here may be a product of the knowledge that this poet can inhabit another’s voice so marvelously, as he shows in the ekphrastic poem “Impression of a Rib” written after Degas’s “Le Café-concert aux Ambassadeurs.” Speaking in the voice of one of the pastel women, the poem is rife with questions of image, excess, power, and visibility. “i have eyes that don’t blink // at being seen” the figure claims. Here, attention to charged, imaginative detail (“my dress drips / down the center. my eyes are needle holes…”) enlivens the larger, social subjects. Wilson’s ekphrastic poems do just that throughout this entire collection—they push together the lush and lyrical with acute awareness of the frames in which that language operates. The frames of the artwork, of the museum, of the poem itself. This is the kind of thought, the kind of language I search for in first books—an extension of self, a generosity of vision, language that startles in its twinned beauty and brutality
The Low Passions begins with a familiar American trope, a familiar American train. Like Whitman’s elegiac locomotive in “When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” and like Whitman’s own expansive vision, Anders Carlson-Wee signals, brilliantly, in the first poem of the book, that this is a “westbound freighter.”
If Whitman is our first American flâneur, he may seem an obvious connection to make regarding a book that foregrounds train-hopping, hitchhiking, dumpster diving, and wilderness survival. The initial poem, “Riding the Owl’s Eye,” begins with a delayed—perhaps never even resolved—conditional catalogue of transient blessings. “Out of all the dumpsters that could have been / empty,” the book opens, offering both promise and emptiness, gratitude as well as the possibility of ruin. This is a speaker who knows he’s lucky (could have), one who acknowledges privilege (one of economic status, one of gender, one of race). This acknowledgement is especially important for a drifter who, it seems, doesn’t need to be drifting. Here, economy is posed against leisure, and these actions undertaken by the speaker and the many other characters in the book are seen as ones of subversion.
If Whitman championed the printing press, the electric telegraph, the steam locomotive, Carlson-Wee signals early on a wariness of what’s become of such inventions: “The Lord gives us trains and we waste those distances / transporting coal,” he writes. Elsewhere, in “Fire,” he tracks the evolution of controlling flame. “By the time we learned / how to urge smoke from sticks there was nothing / left to do we hadn’t already done,” the communal voice a canny technique in a poem that links iron smelting to cattle branding, Zippos to “napalmed feet.” Though the poem ends with a gradual, physical distancefrom such insidious fire—“no calloused hands, no ash / in throats”—it is impossible, the “we” suggests, to ultimately remove the self from the history of such violence.
If Whitman tellsus that he hears America, hears laborers, singing, that he can hear “each one singing his” own nation, Carlson-Wee plays us back those songs. If Whitman sees the role of the bard to be the “Chanter of personality,” Carlson-Wee offers chants through the personalities of those outside the poetic self. And if Whitman made heroes of Americans, of America, Gwendolyn Brooks might ultimately be seen as a closer poetic model for this book—finding, as she did, that which is unheroic, unflattering, while also crafting tender portraits of urban black life. There’s little urban life to be found in an Anders Carlson-Wee poem, but there is certainly loving portraiture, certainly a simultaneous critique and embrace of white masculinity in his own Midwestern world, Midwestern work. The scope in The Low Passion is more local than Whitman’s, less sweeping. To Whitman’s vast panoramas, his nameless soldiers, The Low Passions offers zoomed-in stills and point-of-view shots via its many persona poems (mostly attached, it is important to note, to specific people, specific names). In this manner, again, Carlson-Wee seems to be writing more into the tradition of Brooks’s ballads.
See the multiple poems spoken from the point of view of “Cousin Josh,” who, we learn in an early poem, has been “buried young.” Josh is portrayed as somewhat Falstaffian at times—slightly unstable, spinning his wheels, yet a vehicle of great depth and shrewd perception. He speaks on Doomsday, on food stamps, in irreverence (“the thing that knocks my cock around / is how she never doubts her own goddamn grace”) and wonder. In “Cousin Josh on His Liver,” he riffs on heaven:
“Cousin Josh on Family” circulates around refrains of the ineffable. “I got myself sisters. Two of em. But that’s all I got / to say about that. That’s all I ever knew / to say about my sisters: There’s two of em.” After Josh runs over his pet lizard, Tony, he asks, “What do you say about somethin like that?” and “I’ll be damned / if I know what else to say about that.” By this point, the reader knows that while Josh may doubt his language, his resources, he has, through the voice of the poet, a whole hell of a lot to say.
The Josh poems link the book’s other prosopopoetic acts, as well as the many poems exploring connections between family, masculinity, pride, and violence. Cousins pitch rocks at Josh’s head, “ready for rage, even death, / even ghosts.” Multiple poems focus on startling acts of violence between brothers, where one fashions a weapon out of a flat head nail and a two-by-four, where the speaker hits his brother in the face with a choke chain. Below is “Polaroid”—a poem solidifying, even ritualizing the brutal fights that, up until this point, seem as if they have been exaggerated into the stuff of myth—in its entirety.
Reminiscent of Sharon Olds’s poems that unflinchingly excavate family photographs, this poem derives much of its power from the brothers’ sense of pride at the damage each has inflicted upon the other. It would be fairly simple to critique this violence. Thankfully, Carlson-Wee does something much more interesting: he layers this snapshot over other harsh moments, creating a palimpsest of violences small and large, interior and exterior.
For all the poetic inheritances of this book, what sets The Low Passions apart as a debut collection is its astounding confidence, its palpable self-awareness. While not necessarily narrow enough to be considered a project book, there is an impressive amount of invisible glue holding everything together into a well-made thing. Sure, the end of the book gets a little repetitive in solidifying its concerns, its characters. Sure, there are the usual suspects of many first books—a lot of family narratives, a few nods to the sonnet, a poem or two that overshoots the ending, many modes of address. But there’s never an instance of empty address. Instead, in Carlson-Wee’s poems, the communal voice implicates the speaker in an inherited history of violence; the second person interrogates a cop, elegizes a cousin; the first person can be the intimate confessions of a poet-like speaker or a woman reluctantly letting him crash at her house. The voice-throwing even becomes thematized in the titles, as in “Lyle Clears My Throat.” And we’re left with much wisdom, more than the weird, happy accidents that might result in insight. There’s wonder and awe throughout these poems, but it exists without any attendant naiveté. The first poem ends by asserting, by avowing, by pleading that “We must be the pupil that swells in the coming darkness. / The cargo worth carrying across the distances.” Humanity here is deemed both impressionable and more-than-a-resource. There’s a question of value, and an aspiration to be worthy of—dare I say it—transcendence. Transportation toward something, somewhere new. This doesn’t override the ugliness, the violence, uncovered across these pages. Instead, it poses a productive, catalytic challenge—make it into something “worth carrying.” And The Low Passions certainly does, certainly is.
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 currently teaches at the University of Illinois and is a book review editor for Kenyon Review.