Trace Evidence, by Charif Shanahan. Tin House Books, 112 pp., $16.95.
To 2040, by Jorie Graham. Copper Canyon Press, 88 pp., $25.
Vexations, by Annelyse Gelman. University of Chicago Press, 54 pp., $18.
The three poets reviewed here continue the tradition of art as a record of human experience by thinking of themselves as themselves-in-public. The ideas of others take precedence over ideas from a lonely place. They are communal thoughts, and acknowledged as such. This is less out of “social anxiety” (though there is always some of that) as it is a quest for definition and consensus—trying to situate themselves in a mutual framework, whether that’s using new words because of new definitions, or finding new analogies for the human, since comparison is so hot in us. An excerpt from the middle of Annelyse Gelman’s Vexations displays this reflective sight:
There is a loop of dramatic irony between our anticipation of others’ thoughts about us and our thoughts pretending to originality. This is the “crisis of character” which these poets experience, that ourself relies on other selves, and not in the reductive and inane understanding of “letting others define you,” just the fine dear fact of public existence and the true problems that accompany it.
Charif Shanahan’s Trace Evidence opens with a poem that puts aside images for the sake of a tortured rhetoric (reminiscent of Frank Bidart) and which reads as a kind of proof for the themes above. The ending of “Mulatto” :: “Quadroon” reads:
That final “And so” (which ends the poem) draws attention to the argumentative nature of the poem even while it shows the failure of its argument by staying unresolved as premises without conclusion. The tragedy is that we cannot seem to connect, reader and writer, poet and public. Shanahan is troubled by the inability to be cosmopolitan, to navigate the morality of our differences by the inherited means of language and sympathy: an understanding through communication or through the recognition of a similar experience. The implicit argument is to change our language to better accommodate how things really are (including who people really are, even as they attempt to decipher themselves), hence the title “Mulatto” :: “Quadroon,” antiquated words that nevertheless go unreplaced.
None of this is trouble to Shanahan alone. The trouble is telling us. His anticipation of our quest for his own definition, which we’ll do our best to adopt (since we sweetly do our best to let others be their own definers), has brought about, by that loop of irony, his own genuine questions. There would be no crisis if he wasn’t burdened by communication—if he didn’t have to represent himself in “a particular social world” whose particulars are words. Serenity would be an “everyone-myself,” where representation is useless in a world of one experience.
Throughout Trace Evidence, Shanahan rephrases the self-help question, “am I who I want to be?” into the one forced upon a gay man of mixed race (and, really, everyone), “am I who I want others to see me as?” It isn’t a shallow sentiment, nor one that is concerned only with facades. To be desired risks presenting your body as defined, since another has, presumably, understood what they want from it, even more than you understand what it is, and suddenly that most private of feelings, thought so certainly to be our own, which is “what I really want,” must be publicized to be had, and one’s desire is in another’s hands.
Shanahan explores these issues through poems about cruising, porn, and a breakup, but reaches the heart of his thinking when he considers his mother. From “Not the Whole Thing, But a Large Part of the Story”:
The difference between history and American politics is the disjunction between mother and son: whereas she views his race in its real complexity, the “political understanding” of his race is required to be simple. He is criticizing the West-centric outlook in identity politics that works in the broad strokes of “ethnic” and “non-ethnic,” as if those categories had reality, but he’s also mourning the difference of two understandings that have somehow got between a mother and son.
Trace Evidence ends where Jorie Graham’s book will begin. In “Conversation in Long Future Time,” Shanahan asks what many poets (and non-poets) today are asking, “are we all that different,” and not with forgiving, outstretched arms, but concern and stress about the answers “yes” and “no.” Shanahan images the world as Graham will ask for it: as having continued, as history luckily extended:
Shanahan’s vision of the “long future” is looking back on difference as antique, on cosmopolitanism less “solved” than outmaneuvered as an issue, and the lover and the darling happier for their lack of independence, even as the poem (and book) lingers with a contradiction: it was the difference between them that necessitated love. Otherwise, in the world as one body, we would be meant to love ourselves, and we know them too well to do that.
What will it have meant to last if everything one day ends? We last until we don’t, and then we never lasted. This is Jorie Graham’s leading question for her latest book, To 2040. As her work has done since Sea Changes, To 2040 folds together the personal life with human history, history that includes, like Shanahan’s poem, the future. For Graham, the parallel questions are, “What will my life have been when I no longer, dead, remember it?” and, “What will history be when there’s no one left to read and record it?” In “On the Last Day,” Graham asks,
Graham is concerned here, as she has been in much of her poetry, with the dangers of abstraction, the more dangerous for how easy it is, and if the “harm” of Wordsworth (and many others) was to see a doe leap over a bubbling brook and call it “good” only because it is, to him, beautiful, then the proper action is to separate our abstractions from desire: not to project onto the world a comfortable system—comfortable because appealing. For Graham, as for Stevens and Ashbery, one succumbs to beauty, and to look at the world enamored is to misrepresent it to yourself, even if these are vital fictions that are better accepted than discarded. As a poet, though, this would mean misrepresenting the world to others. Graham struggled with this question fifteen years ago in her great poem “Futures”:
The “action of beauty” is, in this century’s awareness, the construction of illusions. It’s what a painting can do to you, what a song inspires, or the fast accident of love, and who would give those up? But this modernist romanticism uncovers the place of beauty as the place of fictions also. It pulls back the curtain to reveal the other part of the room: love is a kind of ignorance, beauty an artifice, and if we want to keep the former because they are in themselves an excuse to exist, we have to accept them with the guilt of a willing failure.
So Graham’s questions (though without question marks) are, as they’ve always been, as much about poetry as life: the ability to “summarize anything” is a poetic craft. Description cannot leave things as they are. It has no choice but to misrepresent. One of the reasons this discussion has taken place around “eco-poetics” in Graham’s recent work is that a misrepresentation of the world may be at least partially to blame for its mistreatment. We are guilty of assuming our dogs to be sweet, benevolent things when the way they handle their toy simulates the murder of a squirrel. Such moralization is a human failure, and happens on a much grander scale than “who my dog really is.” This is not to say, of course, that art is a catalyst for climate change, but that the themes of representation, abstraction, beauty, and nature that have long haunted poems have a renewed intensity today in being criticized rather than extolled.
To 2040 struggles with the anxiety of inaccurate beauty. In the poem “In Reality,” the poet floats down a river in a rowboat, first passing a surveyor (a symbol of “truthful representation”), then a line of painters; finally, after considering these contrasting modes, the day speaks directly to the poet:
In the increasing lateness of Graham’s poetry, which is the lateness of a poet’s life and style (and which she, in her earned bravado, conflates with the lateness of the world), she denies the cataloging asked of her.
In the not-yet-post-human, the human is embarrassed by their voyeuristic presence, like old folks at a wedding when the young ones start to dance, and begins to feel ashamed of their artful misconstructions of the world. Meanwhile, the non-human would seem to see appropriately, not through works of art, not through mimesis, but in the millions of real, individual experiences that have no intention of being shared or communicated, and thus threaten no artifice. Those “experiencers” Graham includes are a “lover of dead things” (flies? vultures?), swarms of mosquitoes, and bats “so absent of greed.” In the poem, “This Vase of Quince Branches You Sent Me,” emblems of non-sentience, the quince branches, chastise her for being too much with meaning and offer an alternate method of experience:
“Heart” is itself a problematic word, since it in no way refers to the organ—a body, which those branches have—but to “feelings”: it’s a metaphor, not the thing itself. The quince branches are “an otherwise” existence, one that has declined the indulgence of beauty which is meaning, and it took the threat of human history ending to take seriously the idea that quince branches or a gnat might have a preferable existence.
Even in a poem about the problem, the poet practices the problem (hence the shame). The quince branches in a vase look like a still-life, ready to be received as the beautiful, though Graham renames their aesthetic success to “a disaster / of beauty” since she is, in a book so concerned with representation, ready for the criticism: the disaster is hers, not nature’s. (We do well to recall Milton’s Raphael: “accuse not nature,” Adam, of the problems your desires have).
Ironically, the thinking has come full circle, back to Wordsworth, where the unselfconscious life is best—least fictional, most natural—and, just as Wordsworth sees this as an eternally-fled childhood in each of us, gone the moment we become aware of it, it’s an artistic history for Graham: maybe poets of the past could’ve done justice to things, but not me now, knowing what I do, living when I do. That “sufficient ignorance” is gone, even if we won’t stop looking at Chardin, nor end the appreciation of a lemon.
Marking her move to Copper Canyon from HarperCollins (to a non-profit from the big six), Copper Canyon published [To] The Last [Be] Human, a retrospective collection of her work since Sea Changes, which reads as a kind of thesis on these ideas. To 2040 takes a more “posthumous” attitude to the themes: whereas the previous books have argued and fought with these problems, the voice in this book takes a sigh between its phrases, and uses the “has been” quality of its premise (speaking to the future about now) as a sage inflects her language—the drama of wisdom in a prophet. Graham’s books have always sought new forms to mark new poetry, like Stravinsky’s fear of repeating himself, but this book has a calmer front and more normal forms, sometimes working in quatrains reminiscent of Robert Creeley, sometimes in free verse right-aligned that fluctuates between Whitman’s incantation and Bishop’s observational restraint.
Where the experimental enters here is in Graham’s unsure incorporation of new technologies and uniquely 2020’s stuff. Words like “shall” sit next to a VR mask. Our sage spells “you” as “u.” The effect can be like watching the Pope send a tweet on an iPad, where, even while we applaud all efforts in modernity, we’re struck by a sudden inconsistency, one that brings an awkward attention not to the newness of one element but the oldness of the other. In “Fog,” a drone replaces angels and, after telling the poet they “should have learned to / love,” the drone asks, “Whom / are you / at peace with.” That a drone uses “whom” instead of “who” implies that, like Stevens with his mattresses, cigars and clowns, Graham wants to ask the old questions with new words: art and life, art and death, art and the everlasting. In fact, the anxiety may come from representing the modernity of those questions, and since the immortal is fresh in every moment, Graham’s task becomes less about which fictions we have, or what death will be like, than it is to situate that conversation in our time, and to improve it only in the way new wars improve the old.
Graham’s book and Annelyse Gelman’s Vexations share a conscious effort to describe our historical moment, and both poets cast it in the past tense. If it’s easier to identify historical periods by looking back on them (rather than trying to do so in the moment, like trying to survey mountain ranges in a valley), these poets anticipate future memories for the sake of that future authority. Gelman, as opposed to speaking from the past (as most voices reach us), speaks from the future, identifying our present with this cool and lyrical precision:
Vexations is a long poem that takes itself seriously enough not to divide the 215 sestets into narrative or thematic sections, but proceeds like Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The stanzas, like those of sestinas, have a meandering stability: Gelman repeats phrases and cadences enough to draw on the music of repetition even while the poem advances linearly. The overall effect is like a loose, incredibly expanded pantoum with long lines that are assured and sonorous, as in Eliot’s graceful density, or Blake’s fourteeners (and like Blake as well in being both mystical and sensical).
If the poem can be said to have a plot, it somewhat resembles that of Todd Haynes’ Safe: a mother is increasingly pressed upon by a toxic urbanity and “ontological sickness,” while her daughter undergoes trials for some unidentified disorder, and they both end up at a healing camp that more resembles a cult. One is reminded stylistically of Hannah Sullivan’s book Three Poems which also has an Eliotic “unenjambment” to it, conjuring so well the sense of living in a certain time, as well as Alice Oswald’s Memorial in its idea of the simile-as-lyricism and the lyrical manipulation of a narrative. Consider this stanza, which begins with the cataloging the poem delights in, and ends in an expansive epic simile, contrasting so wonderfully with the factualness of the first two lines:
The length of that final line is a rarity in Vexations, as are this excerpt’s enjambments, but here it imitates the way an English translation of an antique simile needs to use more words than the Greek or Latin does (or maybe “gets to” use more words rather than “needs to”). Gelman’s metaphorical sensibility is comic, though darkly comic, and retains a seriousness through sheer power of the images compared.
Even if Gelman is calling on Independence Day or Close Encounters to be the “cultural memories” here, we’re entirely convinced of a genuine representation, not just a postmodern wit or kitschy verve. As long as we return to the original meaning (the silence of shame) with an intensified understanding of it, more intense for being clearer, the poem can, through the simile, carry any amount of irony or absurdity, since it would all be in service to the genuine, vital and universal effort toward description: “I need to tell you what it’s like, because likeness is the best translation of experience.”
Gradually, like a Wagner opera, Vexations builds a storehouse of motifs. Their repetition and variation becomes the piece’s form: the question and answer formula quoted above is repeated with different themes, a list of which affords a glimpse of the ability Gelman has for simile.
In one of the narrative episodes woven into the poem’s meditative tapestry, Gelman projects an ekphrastic meditation of Balthus’ Therese sur une banquette onto the narrator’s own concerns and fascinations with her daughter, who is here portrayed as painfully distant, distancing herself:
Throughout the poem, the mother watches the daughter watch something else, and that posture alone, which is paralleled and concentrated in this ekphrastic stance, conveys, immediately and vividly, a tragic, unwilling detachment. This is the bedrock of the book’s progression: from childhood and away. The art writing is a chance for Gelman to boast a classical serenity in her lines:
Belonging utterly to the instant is exactly what the mother (and Wordsworth) see in childhood as an Eden to the Fall’s self-consciousness, and this book likewise, though perhaps more slantly, engages in the theme of publicity that Shanahan and Graham shared. To get away from that self-consciousness is a recurring goal of poets, and again we should allow ourselves to see the “social” aspect of it (aware of ourselves among others) as extending to the artistic (being aware of what we make): the “aesthetic success” of a breeze, or of a bird’s feathers, or the right simplicity of an oak, is the effect of a beauty so assured that we mistake it for inherence and the truth, not the terms we normally use for art, like a process, an option, a choice. The way these poets have talked around the theme has been a renegotiation of the human—more specifically, to allow “sentience” and “non-sentience” to incorporate like vines—but the quince branches and the ekphrasis here help us to see how these issues can also begin and end within the anxieties of art.
These themes culminate in an extremely ambivalent scene at the end of Vexations where the mother watches the daughter through a window, like the frame of the Balthus, in a sexual experience with a meadow, mirroring Balthus’ uncomfortable sexualization-by-being-seen. Just as Shanahan included a vision of desired futures, and Graham made a book from thinking about them, Gelman’s scene is a dramatization of the appeal each shares: to keep an open mind about boundaries, and thereby keep the boundaries open.
It isn’t an entirely benevolent scene, since “transcending human” here coincides with a sexual awakening and, to the extent all such episodes are, the child’s departure from the parent. It also touches on the moral ambiguity of denying boundaries by equating growth and decay, implying that there are many more erroneous categories to conflate, if we accept the logic. The theme of reproduction hovers over the entire book: the hope of reproduction with the natural world is that it will bear new and truer categories.
Vexations is one of two new books (the other being Dong Li’s The Orange Tree) that herald the relaunch of the University of Chicago’s Phoenix Poets series, edited now by Skrinkath Reddy. It’s clear that Reddy has done the most dutiful task of the editor, which is finding out, regardless of a search’s vastness, the best writing, and in the process has signaled the Phoenix series as a new and welcome source of the highest quality contemporary poetry.
Keene Carter’s previous reviews have been published in the Colorado Review. He has a Bachelor’s of Music in Composition from University of Southern California, an MFA from George Mason University, and works for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.