Scope and Scale in Three New Books
Foreign Bodies, by Kimiko Hahn. W.W. Norton & Co., 109 pp., $26.95.
The Book of Jane, by Jennifer Habel. University of Iowa Press, 93 pp., $19.95.
The Galleons, by Rick Barot. Milkweed Editions, 71 pp., $16.00.
In Memory and Enthusiaism, W.S. Di Piero writes that “Memory is the oceanic flux of images, spectral feelings, lore, all the history-bound matter of intellection and sensation stirring in the present. It promises futurity, extension.” Memory’s collision of the small and large, of the past’s detritus and its future promise, seems an apt stand in for poetry itself. Nowhere else can exquisite compression reverberate with such deep wisdom; nothing else can collapse spheres of space and time, spheres of the private and the public, so deftly and thrillingly.
The following three collections all navigate such spheres through various techniques of scope and scale. They use research to illuminate the present. They are invested in the serial unfolding of material across a book. They all contain at least one long poem. Whether it’s through those long poems’ focus on the minute, through an exposition of the seemingly mundane domestic detail, or through the power and origins of a painting’s various stolen items, these poets know that what appears small holds within it vast implications, and that the expanse of the future is haunted by the beauty and the violence of the past’s particulars.
There’s something disorienting about the collision of subject and scope in Kimiko Hahn’s tenth collection of poems, Foreign Bodies; for a book that focuses on the minute, the (literally) consumable, its approach is that of the maximalist. Not only is the book itself lengthy, but Hahn continues here her employment of the long, sequenced poem. This very tendency—to expand, to extend, to further—is at the heart of this book’s thematic and formal intrigue.
Foreign Bodies centers on Hahn’s research in the Mütter Museum, where the vast exhibits of medical history include Dr. Chevalier Jackson’s collection of extracted objects that had been swallowed or inhaled by his patients. There are 2,374 objects in his collection, and among those on display are coins, bones, toys, screws, and a pearl button. Rather than producing a book-length documentary project entirely centered on the morbid fascination of this peculiar collection of medical oddities, Hahn relates both the patients’ and the otolaryngologist’s desire to consume and collect to her father’s hoarding, a practice that compromises not only her childhood home, but also her mother’s remains.
Part of this expansion is generic. Appearing at the end of Foreign Bodies is an essay, “Nitro: More on Japanese Poetics,” where Hahn merges poetics, manifesto, and defense (similar to the essay on word play that appears in her previous collection, Brain Fever). In “Nitro,” Hahn discusses play, ambiguity, pivoting, and juxtaposition as poetic techniques central to her work. Connecting these techniques (or “poetic conventions,” as she calls them) to Japanese poetry, Hahn relates the homonym-rich Japanese language to an experiential and explosive poetic move of the kakekotoba (“pivot-word”). “I think of a pivot-word as the site of an opening, of potential explosion,” she writes. “Further, the moment is more pointed than the shift found in a sonnet’s volta; and the placement of the pivot-word is crucial (and not predetermined).” The compression of many Japanese forms (the tanka, the haiku) leads to a rare intensity of image and movement, and the various translations Hahn provides as examples are useful and instructive.
Hahn also quotes some of her own lines and movements in the essay in order to show how these relate to Japanese poetics and traditions. These moments, however, read as more of a defense of her own work than a productive extension of poetics and praxis. What’s more, the essay seems to attempt to make the poems’ craft more complex than they appear when encountering them alone. While there is surely play, ambiguity, pivoting, and juxtaposition apparent in Hahn’s work, when combined these often meld into the book’s dominant move: riffing.
A kind of formal expansion, the poetic riff (I’m thinking here of the improvised comedic riff vs. the repeated jazz refrain over which improvisation occurs) operates as may a kite. It’s released at a chosen speed from its spool. It can be held taut, close to its origin, or it can draw out, farther and farther, until spool and kite seem to lose their very connection, only the line occasionally blinking in the sun recalling their dependence. And the more line given the kite—the more the hand unspools it—the greater control needed to combat the elements. It can appear like a casual activity from afar, but both the kite and the riff require great care in order to maintain their sense of ease or sprezzatura.
Throughout Foreign Bodies, this riffing is an elegiac technique. In extended sequences, Hahn strays and strays from an original image or impulse, but the tether, the spool, is almost always related to her declining father or dead mother. This is how the poems amplify Dr. Jackson’s small findings into a larger emotional arena, how the poet avoids myopia and melodrama, and how the tanka itself becomes a stand in for the various ingested objects of desire. The tanka, for Hahn, is minute and intense, yet never-quite-enough. This, too, speaks to the elegiac impulse running throughout the book; while the collector (Jackson, the ingesting patient, the paleontologist Mary Anning, the father figure, the poet) may want to contain a foreign object, the poetic riffing exposes the futility of such archival and elegiac desire. In “Object Lessons,” the longer sequence surrounding Dr. Jackson and his patients, the poet asks, “How to store the object of your ardor,” and the question subtly links the insatiability, desire, and compulsion connected with Dr. Jackson’s patients with the poet’s own desire to maintain a link to her parents.
Nowhere is this elegiac riffing more evident than in “A Dusting,” the poem that immediately follows “Object Lessons.” Here is “A Dusting” in its entirety:
The poem moves from dust that may contain pieces of the mother to theories of galaxy formation to the World Trade Center in the space of ten short lines. From there, the poet riffs on the word dust, inviting in various related phrases and findings. That third section of couplets is where Hahn’s seemingly-casual catalogue reveals an exquisite mind—the quotes from other poets may seem random, yet they’re inextricable from that final line: “dust is where the sparrow bathes herself.” Here, the poet is the sparrow, bathing in detritus, making song from fragment. The very nature of dust is a kind of equivalent to the riff. It permeates and lingers. It gestures to presence and absence, life and loss. The insistent riffing becomes devastating by the end of the poem, yet the speaker is also soothed by dust’s memento mori and the eventual reunion of her own dust with that of her mother’s.
While “A Dusting” smartly ties its riffing to the poem’s themes, elsewhere Hahn’s riffs can seem not only tangential, but almost violent in their associative jerking. In “A Little Safe,” for instance, the fulcrum word “safe” is deployed as adjective and noun in order to connect childhood memory (“In a toy safe, I locked / seven glass giraffes from Grandma”) to salvation (“On Wednesdays, half the fifth grade / left for Catechism Class, each // to learn to save my soul”) to school locker to locket. Here is where the problem lies:
Is that past locket really like the brutal file? Instead of deepening the poem’s ken, the simile strays wildly from its origin; the hand has let go of the kite completely.
Thankfully, these moments are few and far between in Foreign Bodies. And it’s no surprise that, in such a long book, there are some moments that are a bit slack, poems where the information uncovered may be more memorable than the writing in which it is housed. But the maximal, omnivorous approach is crucial in order to show how much grief spills into everything one sees, researches, and digests.
Though I try to avoid the guilty habit, it’s difficult for me not to turn, first, to a book’s notes pages before I begin. I have Thoughts on notes pages. I do not use them, personally, and I often find them self-indulgent and boastful. Still, they can, at times, be thrilling and illuminating (see Lucie Brock-Broido’s), so, more often than not, I peek.
When I first received Jennifer Habel’s The Book of Jane, I flipped to the notes page. And I was crestfallen. Seven of the notes indicated that their corresponding poems were gleaned entirely from found text, and many others appeared as though found text had worked its way in significantly. On occasion, found text can be employed in interesting and innovative ways, but when used frequently it can feel underwhelming or even lazy, as if the poet’s own imagination couldn’t be bothered to interfere. I normally loathe centos. Erasures often seem flimsy, and fleeting.
So I began The Book of Jane with a certain amount of trepidation. This is partly why the experience of reading this collection was so remarkable. The found language that Jennifer Habel engages doesn’t just speak out; it sings. And while it sings, the exterior texts and voices interwoven throughout never overwhelm the voice of the poem, the book, the poet. We get authors, dancers, artists, lectures from a bigoted doctor, the diary of a depressed teacher, the autobiography of a saint, to list just some of those voices that appear throughout this collection. They come to us pitch perfect—parsed and pared, it seems, certainly manipulated at times, but such manipulations never seem violent. Rather, they’re brilliant rejoinders to historical erasure of oft-considered “minor” figures. The book amplifies the voices and lives of women without deadening them to tokens of plight.
See how deftly Habel manages the very concept and form of both cento and erasure in “The Vocation of Saint Thérèse.” (The book version of the title and poem differ slightly from a version previously published by Tupelo Quarterly and currently available on that journal’s website). It’s crucial to maintain that deleted text, so as not to further diminish Saint Thérèse’s language. And we nearly get two separate poems with the track-changes marginalia, where the poet divorces will from would, and where the more dramatic statements of self-flagellation and sacrifice (“I would be plunged into boiling oil”) are removed from the new body of the poem. The Microsoft Word “comments” form allows for subtle, complex commentary and criticism while still being respectful of the primary source.
Indeed, complexity is a trademark of The Book of Jane. Part of this complexity is one of tone, where a certain amount of tonal distance is established throughout poems that are, with their zoomed-in glances into Jane’s (the primary character of the book) domestic life, quite intimate. The seemingly objective voice bristles, coolly, against still lifes, such as in “A Guide to Jane’s Office” where pages of a child’s spelling homework are found next to “xeroxed pages from a book about female creativity in the Weimar Republic.” This office tour is at once muted and mundane (“That’s trash. // That’s recycling”) and profoundly pointed (“Here is the thing about female sculptors in the Weimar Republic: their work was celebrated only if it was small”). As often as the poems may expose a certain weariness, they also celebrate the minds of women that can find great meaning in smaller spaces, smaller strokes.
Should this seem reductive, one only need turn to the book’s final poem to understand how complicated Habel’s approach to gender and scale really is. “Matisse’s Great-Granddaughter, or Jane and the Long Way” is a long poem (23 pages, to be exact, with 38 sections), mostly presented in prose paragraphs, that tilts essayistic—in its form, its point of view, in its discursive tendencies.
The first 37 sections of the poem maintain the number 1, until the final 38th section. Thus the poem is presented as a multitude of beginnings (the first section, assisting such a reading, consists of just these words, sans punctuation: “I begin where”). And “I begin” courses throughout the sections. This “I” assumes the persona of Jane, who we get elsewhere only in third person, working through the life and work of Sophie Matisse. “Her paintings are replicas of famous painting from which she removes all living figures,” we’re told early on in the series.
For all that is left unsaid, for all that is implied in the pages that lead to this final poem, “Matisse’s Great-Granddaughter, or Jane and the Long Way” allows for so much to be uttered and revealed, for so much statement. Just look at the active verbs of thought and its labor: in addition to the repeated phrase of “I begin,” we get “I misremember,” “I contemplate,” “I ask,” “I write,” “I quote,” “No, I don’t quote,” “I recall,” “I attempt,” “I discourse,” “I make,” “I think,” “I learn,” “I arrange.”
The most fascinating of the poem’s verbs, though, is the “I wish,” which appears gradually and then forcefully. In these sections, the longing for Sophie to be a little more serious, a little more of an intellectual force, creeps in. Here are the 15th and 16th sections:
While the speaker is disappointed in some of the frivolity she discovers about Sophie, it’s exactly the discrepancy between Sophie’s work and her appearance, her personality, that exhibit her complexity. Even the insistence on her first name is revealing; Sophie Matisse will always be Sophie. She can never be Matisse.
This is the incisive thought that I so admire in this collection, where we see fascination and frustration regarding the roles into which women, throughout history, have been slotted. First-name, second-rate artist. Pliant muse. Martyr. The carefully-plucked details of private quarters translate, at moments, into a kind of maddening claustrophobia; at other times they seem to be fiercely, lovingly possessive of a different realm that isn’t necessarily closed off from the public sphere, but one that hovers furtively and fervently right alongside it.
My only question regarding that private realm and the question of scale that appears throughout these poems is whether or not the book salvages the minute, the miniature, the domestic (and here, I’m wary of cordoning off the private and public in such simplified, gendered ways, especially as Habel’s writing is constantly showing the shifting and sometimes seemingly contradictory natures of these spheres). What work, I keep wondering, does the small, the mundane do? Can the minute also be grand? Or is the book’s accumulation of smallness, the images and recordings of the anti-grand, itself enough of an amplification? I assume the latter is true. And that the complexity previously mentioned is derived from placing self-effacement and humility and recovery alongside bafflement and irritation and contraction.
Ultimately, The Book of Jane is exquisite and bold, and it makes the minute, the overshadowed, and the domestic absolutely unavoidable, makes them—through cutting-yet-tender portraits and miniatures—quite huge.
“Research is mourning, my friend says,” begins one poem in Rick Barot’s The Galleons. “Which means what, / exactly,” the speaker asks, “for the things listed in the archives // as filling the galleons when they left Cebu and Manila—”. What follows is a lengthy catalogue of those “things”: “mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture” and “camphor” and “nutmeg, tamarind, ginger” and “up to 1000 souls / depending on whether the ship had a tonnage of 300 or 500 // or 1000 or 2000.” What concludes the sentence (the various goods are all held between two dashes, across 13 couplets) and the question (“Which means what”) is this: “—elegy?” Are the recovered findings of the researcher, Barot seems to be asking, the formal attendant to mourning?
The couplet has long been entangled with elegy; there’s something about its collisions and exclusions that seems perfectly suited for the elegiac. It’s a space in which two lines must be in intimate conversation, where compression almost always leads to urgency; it’s a space where that intimacy is cast against the enjambment’s dramatic drop and silence, against the large, looming world of the poem. Often, a couplet seems to be caught between the desire for stasis (the elegiac couplet operating as its own, discrete unit) and the desire for progress (the inevitable step forward into the larger movement of the poem). Its mourning is that of the lyric in general: mourning the inability to say it all in such little time and space.
Barot is no stranger to the couplet, but The Galleons, unlike his previous collections, never strays from this stanzaic form. Such faithfulness to the couplet makes sense in a book that is invested in the oddities (some insidious, some pleasing) of postcolonial life, where our surroundings and possessions and origins are so wedded, so linked, to seemingly distant worlds. Barot’s couplets remind us of the histories and consequences that undergird such distances. They also foreground the violent collapse of space derived from mercantile trade. It’s difficult not to consider the couplet as a galleon of sorts—an exploratory vessel ferrying its cargo across the larger sea of the poem. The couplet, like the galleon, has layers, has an underbelly. Part of it exists hidden below deck, unable to be seen from the surface. What’s hidden there is dangerous and elusive—treasure, bodies.
While there are certainly risks in employing militaristic metaphors to poetry, The Galleons seems to invite such thought, as the majority of the collection explicitly addresses the writing of poetry. Here’s the beginning of “The Flea,” one of many such poems:
The poem continues into both ars poetica and artist statement:
Indeed, this offers a lucid insight into the ethos, and the frustrations, behind Barot’s poetics. If we think of restlessness as a kind of foil or opposition to authority, the couplet (and its inherent agitation and impatience) may be seen as restlessness’s likely aid. This speaks to the complexity of the collection’s thought and its craft—couplet as armed cargo ship, but also couplet as anti-authoritarian vehicle.
Would that the couplet always be doing such difficult work. That “grudging faith // in the particular” is evident throughout The Galleons, but there are moments when the form seems like a container into which not particulars, but mere information is poured. I’m thinking here of “The Galleons 6,” a poem that lists names of various galleons alongside what appears to be their dates of arrival. Here’s a sampling from the poem’s 90 couplets:
And so on. The poem clearly wants to overwhelm with information and with the sheer mass of ships across the decades, but there comes a point when one might ask—where does the poem stop making an impression, and begin making a reader skim ahead, or, worse, turn away?
Thankfully, this isn’t the dominant mode of the book, and I’d like to offer what I see as a kind of counter to “The Galleons 6” in a poem that does deal, quite brilliantly, with particulars. Here is “On Some Items in the Painting by Velázquez” in full:
Yes, this poem provides a “bitter cartography,” and yes, the poem exposes not only the violent theft but also the long-rippling ramifications of systems that thrive on such theft—but there still exists the lushness and pleasure in those items. And the speaker thrillingly admits to coveting such treasures in spite of their origins. The minute explodes into hefty socio-political implications and historical origins, and in The Galleons Barot cuts through multiple layers of colonialism and capitalism in a truly impressive exercise in scale.
Corey Van Landingham, a contributing editor, is the author of Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens (Tupelo Press, forthcoming) and Antidote (Ohio State, 2012). She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.