Canopy, by Linda Gregerson. Mariner Books, 96 pp., $14.95.
Lion’s Paw, by Kathleen Peirce. Miami University Press, 78 pp., $20.
Best Barbarian, by Roger Reeves. W.W. Norton & Co., 128 pp., $26.95.
Breaking Bad, Billions, Ballers. Rome. All of Game of Thrones, plus House of the Dragon. Both seasons of The White Lotus. The new Gossip Girl. Then the original again. Community. Friends, for the fourteenth time. The Sopranos and Mad Men for the third. Bojack Horseman again. Euphoria. Succession. Curb Your Enthusiasm. The OC, up until Marissa dies. The Sex Lives of College Girls. Sex Education. My Brilliant Friend, Abbott Elementary, The Office, yet again. Derry Girls. Crashing and Fleabag. Riverdale and You and Bridgerton all hate-watched. Too Hot to Handle begrudgingly, then enthusiastically. Sporadic Sex and the City when I couldn’t make another decision. Some movies, though few were memorable.
Since March of 2020 I have binged and re-binged, stayed up until dawn, put an actual dent in my couch, streaming. At first, it was something to pass the time between books during lockdown. I told myself I had earned a break, rushing through a Ph.D. and the job market, moving every other year for the past decade. Then it became more of an addiction, familiar, I’m sure, to many. I don’t get bored, but I do struggle with insomnia, and, when I can’t sleep, a good book will keep me up much later than bad TV. Was it that I started to opt, more and more, for the next episode, rather than turn to the page, that was making me feel, increasingly, slower? Stupider? Or was it the two bad rounds of COVID that made me constantly forget words, forget why I walked into the laundry room, made reading, made writing, feel more and more grueling, some days nearly impossible?
I was looking, I think, for something easy. Mindless. Something that wouldn’t require too much thought, keep me up at night. Something that wouldn’t make me want to write when I didn’t have the time. All of which is to say that when I admit there are understandable barriers between potential readers and poetry that may be described as difficult, I have faced, recently, those very barriers. I have been that potential reader and, more often than not recently, I have turned away.
In job interviews, one is often asked about the relationship between teaching and one’s own work. I used to offer some mostly-bullshit answer about revisiting received maxims. Over the past year, though, teaching introductory poetry workshops for the first time in ages, I felt I needed to practice what I preached. Or, more than that, I felt I was in a similar place as many of my students, feeling impatient, restless in front of a text that would require more of me, one that made me participate, do—god—work outside of just plain reading. How could I cheer them on, guide them through that process, if I myself was reluctant? I needed to teach myself again, or more let myself be taught, before I could teach others. And so began my slow reimmersion into difficult poetry.
Which is partially why this review is slightly belated, though I don’t think reviews need to attend to release dates, needn’t promote. I have read each of these three collections more than I ever re-read a book before a review. One of them I have probably read at least ten times now. These poets require a willing, patient reader. Finally, I have come to meet them on their own terms.
In many ways, Canopy is Linda Gregerson’s least difficult book to date. Sure, there’s a little Latin. There are her signature 16-line winding sentences, frequent asides, her amputating enjambments. It wouldn’t be a Gregerson book without a vast net of reference—Mandeville and Milton, sculptures and paintings, photography and symphonies, history and myth. For all the allusions, though, all the notes, for poems that begin with tags nodding to their ekphrastic origins, these poems often feel so much more of the world.
I’ve been trying to figure out why.
For decades, Gregerson has woven together the historical and the contemporary. Her books have been full of the personal, of the family, have included mass shootings and iPhones and MRIs and the NBA. Her language has become more and more porous, omnivorous, from seventeenth-century phrasing “Lyons there are none. / The // beares afraid of any man” to the valley girl’s “As if.” When I say the poems feel more of the world, I don’t mean to suggest some hierarchy of or boundaries between what constitutes that world; Frederick II of Hohenstaufen’s The Art of Falconry and Theseus are just as much of the world as the film Magnolia and 9/11. It’s more that the sites of reference don’t play as active of a role throughout Canopy. They’re necessary to the poems, and sometimes create the entire intellectual landscape for a poem, but our speaker acts as a present guide leading us—and leading herself—throughout those landscapes. Here, for example, is “The Wayfarer” in its entirety (which includes a tag at the opening, noting “Hieronymus Bosch, 1516”):
Compare this with the opening of “Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft, with Open Grave,” first published twenty years earlier in Waterborne (and including a similar tag at the top of the poem, “Emanuel de Witte, 1653[?]”):
Who is the friend? What is alembic light? What exactly is this beauty, as opposed to that other beauty, for which the speaker makes a case? And what does that beauty come nearer to? I have some guesses, ones that further and deepen the more time I spend with the poem, but nothing certain, immediate. And then in a note, the fact that the painting is, in fact, “a fictional composite based on several paintings by Emanual de Witte, Hendrick van Vliet, and Gerald Houckgeest” and thus cannot be simply Googled for a visual counterpart! Much, then, omitted here. Which is not a complaint—this is a poem I have long loved. But it demands much more from me as a reader than “The Wayfarer,” where I can easily find Bosch’s corresponding painting, and where, perhaps more importantly for my case here, the speaker describes, provides historical notes, comments on, scratches her head at, and ultimately illuminates a painting many might not know. The painting is pulled into the present by the poem, by the human observer behind it, and made not only concrete, but riveting. Alive.
It’s that very animation that forms the foundation of this collection’s difficulty, a difficulty rooted not in syntax or diction or reference, but one linked to being an individual in the twenty-first century living amongst ecological disaster, seemingly never-ending wars in the Middle East, gun-toting protestors, and COVID-19, though this feels like a meager précis. These aren’t new anxieties, but the difficulty of Canopy, present in other collections but more pronounced here, is a difficulty of position, of distance, a difficulty of—dare I say it?—morality. Present before, yes, but more convincing here. More urgent. Perhaps because the mind, the voice, the speaker parsing the contemporary world feels less like a chosen thread for the weave of a poem, but an element that can’t be kept out, one that insists and probes, one that worries and wonders into the poem’s necessary artifice. The second section of six-part poem “Sleeping Bear” acts as exemplar:
This section elucidates the unease that has haunted Gregerson’s poems for some time now: empathizing with disaster that appears, until a photograph’s theatrics, abstract; parsing the 24-hour news cycle; moving from seeing to understanding. The poem opens, then, with explicit questions about difficulty. How do we frame that vivid, concrete image—the particular from which unfurls the universal, as many of us may have underlined in Mary Oliver—when it’s an image of suffering? How do we move away from the abstract, create that “poignancy” of the tragic moment, without sensationalizing? Like most good questions in poems, “Sleeping Bear” doesn’t provide answers, or at least not easy, or immediate ones.
As each section unfolds, though, a portion of Gregerson’s answer—her poetics—is revealed. The poem’s title refers to Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, named after the Anishinaabek story about the dunes’ geological origin. For concision, here is one of the versions the National Park Service includes on its website:
Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but soon the cubs tired. Mother bear reached the shore first and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. The cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the eternal vigil of mother bear.
A moving story in itself, and one that gains even more resonance when following the image of the Syrian refugee child. This association would have been enough for many poets, but not for Gregerson, who constantly demands more. The section of the poem where the legend is introduced ends with an exacting self-consciousness. “We go to them [the islands] now by ferry. / We are not / the people to whom the legend belongs.” Oh, you find this hard? the poem seems to be asking. Sad? We are mere tourists here. We know nothing of this kind of heartbreak.
Which isn’t exactly true, though, and Gregerson knows this. The poem ends with the speaker discursively engaging with the legend, with the geology of the now-national-park. Evoking the layers of sediment gathered up by the glacier to form these very dunes, the poem ends with what it calls “this bit of sediment”—the offering of “We didn’t mean to fail you. We were here.” Suddenly, the contemporary tourist, likened to the contemporary reader, is positioned in proximity to that Mother Bear watching her children drown, fire burning on the other side of the lake.
I first read this collection in Ashland, Oregon, at my mother’s house on the edge of town. A house that was first owned by my grandmother, who once had to evacuate it as forest fires rushed down the mountain. Fires that have only increased, in number and intensity—no new news, I know. It was November, when I received the review copy. Outside, the mountain valley still smelled faintly of smoke. I would fly back to Illinois the next day, leaving that smell, that threat, behind.
“We were here” may seem like little amelioration, but it feels like a real, difficult truth, closing in on the fringes of a call to action that doesn’t feel self-satisfied. Gregerson’s language and phrasing will never be easy. Canopy even opens with the command to “Speak plainly,” which her frequent compounding-gesturing-to-the-insufficiency-of-everyday-speech, her long, multi-sectioned, imbricate poems, her obscure references will never allow. But when these poems do offer more readily-available entry points, their revelations are even more challenging. Becoming a tourist to disaster feels unconscionable; these poems compel us, no matter how impossible it may often seem, to do otherwise.
Listen, the poetry workshop is my livelihood, and I believe in its many virtues, I do. But it is a difficult environment for mystery. No matter how often I deliver my Mystery = Good/ Confusion = Bad speech to my classes, no matter how many times I say, “Mystery is productive, it rewards re-reading,” or, “Mystery is active, confusion inert,” I often steer workshop conversations, and thus student poems, toward clarity. I have no qualms about this at the introductory level. Above that level, though, I think I’m doing students a disservice. The workshop often feels less as though it’s treating poems as experiences in language, and more as though it’s diagnosing them. Streamlining them. Yes, I want students to be intentional in their choices. Yes, I want students to have something to say, to have real ideas legible in their poetry. But where has my patience gone, my taste, for simply wandering around in the field of language? For letting another writer’s words wash over me? That was once what astonished me about poems. What thrilled me. The sense of walking away from a poem baffled, in the best of ways.
Kathleen Peirce’s Lion’s Paw was exactly the shock to my system I needed, though a change didn’t occur instantly. At first, I resisted this collection. I would start it, multiple times, and feel as though I was unable to sustain my attention long enough, not just for the entire book, but for an entire poem. Sometimes, even for an entire sentence, or image (more on this later). I’ve loved Peirce’s work for a long time, and I kept wondering, had her poems changed, or had I? Of course, the answer is both. But I was the problem. It’s me. When I was finally able to spend the time these poems demanded, deserved, when I could focus properly, this book seized me.
There is an image that recurs in Lion’s Paw, the image of two hands, one active, one seemingly passive. In one poem, “The right hand draws / a face in profile, whose?, and the left / is a weight on the sheet.” In another:
Yet another describes the hands in a painting of Mary Magdalene where she “holds a jar of unguent up, / her under-hand assigned to tenderness and confidence; the over, / on the lid, lifting to a crack, is made grotesque by what she knows.” Such images speak to the experience of reading these poems, with the dominant hand searching for reason, clarity—another poem reminds us that “there’s a knife / in the word precision”—the other decidedly not wielding the knife, not opening the lid, not guiding the kite. The hand, it seems, of mystery. It isn’t truly passive, only seems so in the face of a more willful action. Non-dominant, we call this hand. Which also feels like a potential way to discuss the layers of meaning in a poem, the non-dominant expressions and potential exposures that linger below the surface.
Almost every poem in this collection holds a moment that seems to speak to the praxis of poetry, to Peirce’s poetics. The more I read this book, those moments became crucial footholds, reminding me of how to engage with these poems. Almost like a Magic Eye book, where you have to stop actively searching, relax your eyes to the edges to see the image rising from the page. Or like training yourself to look for a meteor flashing across the expanse of the sky.
But, more than ars poetica, the hands, the non-dominant substrata, offer Peirce’s own epistemology. Sure, that approach to knowledge is reflected in the poems. More importantly, though, it reveals not how we can engage with a poem, but how we can engage with the world. In “Two Horses in a Field with Daffodils,” Peirce explicitly describes this process of knowledge. Here is the poem in full (the first line continuing the title image):
Understanding, like the dominant hand, is active, consuming. That taking in is the easier option. Not understanding, however, requires one not just to transform the material of self into other things—“I make things out of myself”—but to create outside the self. To step from the boundaries of the self, closer to the unknown. This feels like the kind of proximity one needs in approaching a difficult poem, in approaching a Kathleen Peirce poem.
Because these poems demand, and reward, time. Here is an opening image to a poem appearing early in the book, an image and a sentence I kept re-reading, an image that both eluded and captivated me so much so that I had to draw myself a kind of diagram to better see it. The poem begins simply enough, “Two trees there beyond the shore….” Okay, I can picture this, if abstractly, substituting my own stockpile of tree-lined shores. The sentence continues:
What forms the zig-zag? The arches and post obstructing the view? The actual shape of the lake? And how do the trees mark that zig-zag? By merely drawing the eye to it? Do they contribute to the zig-zag? So is the view clear, or obscured?
Exactly, the poem seems to say. And fitting, no, that this is the poem where those aforementioned images of hands first appear? Here is the entire short poem, called “Play of Causes”:
My problem with mystery in much contemporary poetry is that it often feels too willful, obscuring actual thought about or engagement with the exterior world. I don’t want to put in the work, the time, when it doesn’t seem like the poet has. But Peirce’s is a meaningful mystery, one forged from the enigmatic quality of what stands in front of us, what we think we know by sight, but which holds, like that “other hand,” a life of its own. Instead of relying on a hermetic opacity, these poems begin with seemingly private images that, with time, with attention, provide access to an elegant, philosophical mind. Peirce has always been drawn to the short poem, but those in Lion’s Paw feel even more gem-like. These poems have more facets, more faces, than one first realizes. They are prismatic, in the way they bend the light. Sometimes it’s beyond our reach—which is where I had forgotten I want poetry to take me.
Of these three collections, Roger Reeves’ Best Barbarian is the most closely aligned with those poets now often synonymous with poetic difficulty: the Modernists. Indeed, Ezra Pound himself is invoked throughout “Domestic Violence,” the long, virtuosic poem at the book’s center where the speaker, Louis Till, Emmett Till’s father, meets Pound (with whom he was imprisoned), among many other figures, in a Dante-inspired afterlife. Deeply allusive, register-shifting, self-conscious and -questioning, at times collagist, catalogic, historically and politically savvy, Best Barbarian feels like a book dreamed-up between the ghosts of Pound and Langston Hughes.
But also Larry Levis and Brigit Pegeen Kelly. These latter, contemporary poets feel important to mention because beauty, here, is also foregrounded. The sprawling, elegiac poems of Levis and the long, often challenging, sonically-rich poems of Kelly co-mingle with Modernist forebearers to form, in Reeves’ work, a remarkably textured, lyrically-inflected, and, yes, beautiful poetry. Not that beauty can’t be found in the fragmented wasteland of contemporary society, but the following lines, from the poem “Mother’s Day,” seem borne from a different aesthetic vein:
This is, however, to borrow a phrase from the book’s first poem, a “difficult beauty.” For loss marks this collection, from the loss of a schizophrenic father to the loss inherent in a country building walls around its borders, in a chronically angry president, a Klan rally, in the constant terror of police brutality, the loss enumerated in the long, rushing list of forty-one names at the end of “Domestic Violence”—“Eric Garner Emmett Till Freddie Gray / Korryn Gaines Trayvon Martin Martin Luther / King El-Hajj Malik Shabazz Fred Hampton.”
It’s important that “Mother’s Day” comes before ten-page “Domestic Violence.” Not only because it establishes a sense of personal loss and tenderness, but also because the dead are summoned so vividly, so viscerally, in a poem that isn’t itself particularly challenging. That hole in the floor acts as a kind of portal for the collection. We have encountered the dead more obliquely up until this point through the father’s death-bed, genocide, references to slavery, gestures to the recurring death of Black men. But “Mother’s Day” opens the door—that hole in the floor—for a more particular, more active dead. Palestinian author and PFLP activist Ghassan Kanafani, assassinated by the Israeli Mossad, addresses the speaker just two poems later. “The moon sick, Kanafani standing at is edge, / Asking me: What are you loyal to other than death?” And the following poem, the Inferno-tilted-Paradiso fever dream of “Domestic Violence,” feels like an attempt to, if not exactly answer, then wrestle, then dance, with this question. “Mother’s Day” allows readers to see, to feel the dead present before being thrown into a claustrophobic, demanding long poem where the dead speak, swirl, guide, commune, depart, and allude. In one section, Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton act as Till’s guides in the afterlife. They speak to him, as one voice, as he contemplates the chasm of violence:
No, they do not answer, and never do. They play and chide, not to abrogate their afterlife duty, but to fulfill it through a deeper, more demanding, quest. Of Till, and, through following Till’s own epic journey, of the reader.
While I feel as though I’m up on my Dante, my Brooks, my Lorde, my Clifton, my history of Emmett Till, “Domestic Violence” drives me again and again to the search bar. First The Kybalion, from one of the poem’s epigraphs, then refreshing myself on Douglass’s character Demby, looking up the lines from the beginning of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that I couldn’t exactly remember after reading Reeves’ “And so, I ran past the possum running through the skull/ Holes of a dead man lying in the fog that licked them / Into a wet testimony,” which reminded me that it was Eliot, not Pound, who was nicknamed Possum (Possum is directly addressed soon after: “Dead Possum, what do we do with this darkness / Between us…”), then returning to the myth of Priam, who suddenly appears in the poem, head split. Then I looked up Nebuchadnezzar, then Oya. Then I realized I wanted to know more about Louis Till—only knowing about his son wasn’t enough—and so I started all over again…
This information offers a different experience of the poem, but it doesn’t offer answers. These aren’t clues that instantly unlock the poem, and, if anything, the knowledge they bring makes the poem even more difficult as one plugs in the allusions, works through them, as one is made to slow down even more, as in the line “But not the reason of Plato, Virgil, Foucault” (pause, reverse, rack brain for these writers’ various notions of reason, apply, press play). I want to emphasize this continued difficulty not because it is a frustrating one, but because of the multiple possible reading experiences. That sentence about reason continues:
If I’m not caught up in tracking a history of reason, if I’m not connecting that spear back to Priam, I’m awash in the rhythmic pulsing of these lines, I’m being tantalized by that image of the stars dying in the night’s hair, I’m feeling an almost corporeal sense of release once the long stanza ends. “You are in a beautiful language,” Reeves writes in “For Black Children at the End of the World—and the Beginning,” the final poem in Best Barbarian. Even if someone lacks the reference points for this book’s many, many allusions, they can walk around in the rich field of Reeves’ difficult, beautiful language.
I’ve written before about my skepticism of lengthy notes sections, but Reeves’ five pages of notes offer not only attribution and homage (nodding to the poems of David Ferry, Walt Whitman, Frank Bidart, Langston Hughes, James Schuyler, Ross Gay, Nathaniel Mackey, Larry Levis, Frank Stanford, Jericho Brown, Terrance Hayes, Christopher Gilbert, as well as Dante, Chaucer, Virgil, Pound, Brooks, Neruda, Stevens, Sappho, and Adonis, the music of Drake, Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, Sun Ra), but also a window into an omnivorous poetics. These aren’t notes marked by braggadocio or mastery, but by generosity, curiosity, community. These notes harmonize with Reeves’ poetics, and speak, I think, at least partially, to why I’m willing to take the time with these poems, with this book, why I’ll actually go Google something, someone, after reading a poem. And then read it again. Generosity—that may be the most crucial aspect of a difficult poetry. If one is patient, if one puts in a little work, they will be rewarded. This generosity is also one of esteem, a trust in the hands that hold it.
To risk sentimentality, it feels like a privilege to be trusted by this book. “Stay with me,” the speaker of “The Broken Fields Mended” urges. And I do, I will.
Though I’m loath to give the ridiculous article any more attention, the latest poetry-is-dead New York Times clickbait essay actually makes a case for poetry today. In “Poetry Died 100 Years Ago this Month,” Matthew Walther bemoans insufficient celebration of the centenary of “The Waste Land,” leading to his proclamation that no poem written today will be the cause of such celebration “for the simple reason that poetry is dead.” Why is it dead? Because T.S. Eliot is apparently suspect #1 in its murder. Oh, and also because of Walther’s diagnosed contemporary alienation from nature. Because Eliot first (…?) wrote from a place of alienation and unease and irreverence, because of his poetic rupture into Modernism, that he was so exhaustive in his success in this mode, gazing at the fragments of civilization, that most poets now only imitate a poetry, a worldview, he took to the pinnacle. One he pushed off the cliffs. The rest of us are left to pick amongst his stony rubbish, unaware of the sources of our own emotional, intellectual, formal, tonal work.
If Walther is correct—which, reader, he isn’t—in contemporary poetry’s lack of awareness of our own belatedness, our own fracture from whatever he is deeming as “nature” and its transcendent power, I might pose difficult poetry as the antidote. Which brings me back to teaching, and leading students into the mindset of how to enter, how to access, how to think with and within a poem.
Reginald Shepherd first provided me the pedagogical tools for tackling this in the classroom. In his 2008 essay “On Difficulty in Poetry,” Shepherd lays out a taxonomy, or “anatomy” as he calls it, of difficulty. Moving from lexical difficulty to allusive difficulty, syntactic to semantic, tonal and figurative, explicative and interpretative, formal, rhythmic, and, finally, modal, he pinpoints the possible answers to what makes a poem difficult. Foremost in his defense of difficult poetry is a case against transactional meaning. “It’s more useful to think of the poem as a field full of meanings,” he writes, “than as a thing that means something else, or as a container for or vehicle of meaning.” Instead of excluding potential readers, difficult poems include them by offering them a role, something “to do.” And they offer pleasure, a sensory experience, which is different than—though can facilitate and precede—understanding.
Helping beginning poetry readers and writers identify the various, possible fields of meaning allows them to dwell in those fields. It’s an adjustment, to be sure, moving away from the simply communicative direction of language and into the aesthetic. But once students dispel notions of summary, of about-ness, of mere subject (though I’m admittedly wary here, too, of leading students into nonsense poems, poems with no ties to the material world), they are able to see poetry as a new way of thinking. Not being able to say what a poem is about, but what it does, might be exactly what we need to combat our experiences of alienation. It might be not just what leads to reading and enjoying a difficult poem, but writing one. Even more so, it might be what sustains the contemporary mind, what can help one distinguish between contesting positions of truth, what can compel one toward complexity of language, what can make one pay closer attention to the world, natural or not, as a mode of proximity, not distance. Linda Gregerson, Kathleen Peirce, and Roger Reeves write poetry that makes the tired poetry-is-dead argument seem especially silly. The fields of meaning rolling across these collections are spacious. They make room for us. They make me want to slow down, to stay awhile.
Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote and Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, and Reader, I, which is forthcoming from Sarabande Books in 2024. A West Branch Contributing Editor, she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.