Dolefully, A Rampart Stands, by Paige Ackerson-Kiely. Penguin Books, 66 pp., $18.
The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos, by Dionne Brand. Duke University Press, 248 pp., $22.95.
If You Have to Go, by Katie Ford. Graywolf Press, 72 pp., $16.
The Unstill Ones, by Miller Oberman. Princeton University Press, 96 pp., $17.95.
In my recent reading practice, I have been paying almost obsessive attention to the word thing. I am not sure if this attention is helping my reading or hindering it, but I can’t help it. Having become attuned to the usefulness of this ubiquitous noun, I can’t go back to ignoring it. The word is denser than you might expect, as I first learned reading Bruno Latour’s 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”
Martin Heidegger, as every philosopher knows, has meditated many times on the ancient etymology of the word thing. We are now all aware that in all the European languages, including Russian, there is a strong connection between the words for thing and a quasi-judiciary assembly. Icelanders boast of having the oldest Parliament, which they call Althing, and in many Scandinavian countries you can still visit assembly places that are designated by the word Ding or Thing. Now, is this not extraordinary that the banal term we use for designating what is out there, unquestionably, a thing, what lies out of any dispute, out of language, is also the oldest word we all have used to designate the oldest of the sites in which our ancestors did their dealing and tried to settle their disputes? A thing is, in one sense, an object out there and, in another sense, an issue very much in there, at any rate, a gathering.
Not being a philosopher, I did not know this etymology, nor was I aware of how often philosophers use the word to describe an object in its unquestionable existence, its being “out of language,” before the word for that object shapes our perception of it. And I did find it extraordinary that a word I had taken so much for granted had a sort of sexy afterhours life, meaning “a gathering.”
If the word thing has been philosophically useful, current news items are teaching me that it is also legally so. Among the reasons the forty-fifth President of the United States was impeached by the House of Representatives is the fact that he asked a foreign government to investigate a political opponent; that is, he demanded in exchange for U.S. military aid a “thing of value,” a phrase commonly used in legal statues to define extortion. The vagueness of the word works exceptionally well here.
Might thing also be lyrically useful? Virginia Woolf thought so. In Mrs. Dalloway, the titular character has at least one undefinable encounter with a thing. Napping after lunch, in an ominous revelation almost like a haunting, she feels its presence:
Since she was lying on the sofa, cloistered, exempt, the presence of this thing which she felt to be so obvious became physically existent; with robes of sound from the street, sunny, with hot breath, whispering, blowing out the blinds.
What is this thing? Woolf never tells, or doesn’t know. Thus I have encountered nearly every subsequent thing (it is a common word) whispering with hot breath on robes of sound, possessing mysterious meaning, importantly hiding its significance under an everyday vagueness, fully and essentially open to interpretation, a bit bewildering.
I have had no recourse but to read the four books under review here, books that are also otherwise important to me, by paying either undue or overdue attention to each poet’s things of value. These extraordinary books gather together what Latour finds extraordinary in the word thing: they pair what is unquestionably out there with the issues that are very much in there, for which we assemble and debate, the things that test and shape what we value: sexual violence, the psychological effects of racism, sacred solitude, trans and queer intimacy. And they are also books written by poets attuned to the usefulness of a bit of ambiguity or openness, a bit of thingly inexactitude, in their language.
Paige Ackerson-Kiely writes, in her new book Dolefully, A Rampart Stands, of what it is like to “come blindly to a thing so beautiful,” and what it is like to then “turn away as if not seeing were a choice” (“Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed”). In this book, the word thing is useful because what Ackerson-Kiely finds herself blindly approaching, what she cannot not see, are things too painful or violent to fully describe. This book contains lyric approaches to rural poverty, abusive relationships, sexual violence, the murder of women—and these approaches are simultaneously direct and sidelong. Direct in the poems’ illumination of these realities, sidelong in how the poet’s lyric style, in both verse and prose, narrates—or nearly narrates—them.
Take for example the poem “Winter Moth.” Written in prose, the poem begins almost like a short story, with a third-person narration of a woman reflecting on a relationship. “She never thought of the last thing he said to her, except on January 5th, when everyone in town put their Christmas trees out by the side of the road.” Ackerson-Kiely, however, withholds the context that would make this poem a story, instead turning her attention elsewhere. This withholding, the lack where a reader might expect narrative explication, leads to a significant shock toward the end of the poem, when the speaker’s attention turns again, a mind wandering:
In the tumult, some needles were loosed from the branches and flew out onto the snow behind the truck. They looked like larvae of the Winter Moth, an early dispenser, active well into January under the right conditions. The female attracts a cloud of males. She isn’t much to look at—small, nearly wingless, and still while they take turns. Please don’t feel badly about where this is going. The difficult thing about joy is not the end of joy, but the preparation for the end of joy
Still while they take turns—this sexual aggression drifts past quickly, then lingers. The poem ends shortly after. Never directly revealing what happened to the woman, the “Winter Moth” leaves us only with probabilities. The violence taking place in the associative level—the female moth and its cloud of males, or the Christmas trees crunched into the garbage truck—might also, but might not, be taking place in the life of the woman as well. The poet seems to be suggesting that the difference between might and might not in such matters is not as important as a reader might assume.
One of the two major pillars—the lasting things—of this book is the long prose sequence “Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed.” The back of the book describes this sequence as belonging to the “noir” tradition, and despite my distrust of book blurbs I can’t disagree. It might also be reminiscent of an episode of Law and Order: SVU, which I recently read is the longest-running American primetime drama ever. Maybe Ackerson-Kiely’s poem helps illuminate why this type of narrative, of sexual violence toward women, finds such lasting purchase. The speaker of the poem is a man, a rural cop of a type much less heroic than a Stabler or Benson (he might be a detective, but he lacks authority or professional drive), who is called to help investigate the rape and murder of a young woman. The sequence begins:
They called me down so I went down. My uniform was basically clean; a life alone makes the need for external demonstration almost disappear, but not fully. One thing I hate is when you get there and it’s all over. Like felled trees after a storm you have to cut up and drag off the road. But not really the same thing.
Not the same thing at all.
In this initial prose fragment, as the cop fails to prevent the body of the woman from drifting farther down the river by which it is found, Ackerson-Kiely introduces the central conceit that makes this sequence so arresting:
She was still beautiful from a distance and always in my memory delivered on a soft cloud. I didn’t make a grab for her shirt as it drifted away, there on the banks, sun as bright as I’d ever seen it. I was afraid to be pulled under.
The first she from the speaker’s memory, purposefully unclear in my excerpting, is the cop’s ex-girlfriend. Throughout the sequence, the speaker conflates his ex and the dead woman. The pronouns she/her take on a strange fluidity, an important incoherence, not unlike the noun thing. This relational weirdness twins the cop with the killer. Grammatically, the space between the villain and the ostensible hero becomes hard for a reader to navigate.
This relational weirdness is also a lyric product of the cop’s thought, which the poet captures beautifully, or which she makes beautiful. The cop is, though perhaps well-intentioned, something of a creep. Yet the sequence exposes his emotional vulnerability, his deep wells of masculine self-abasement, and a reader might come to understand how ill-fitting socialized expectations of domination and authority might lead a man such as he to violence.
Mad about her death, about her leaving for another life. […] A life of jingles I try to squeeze out to quiet the mind. Hush, hush at the breast where we all were, once. There is your mother. There’s the sun, straddling you, her hair sweeping across your eyes. […] What we do with details is not unlike touching a thing that doesn’t want to be touched, a thing that would wheel around and bite the hand if only it could. The part of hunger we deserve.
If not, at least he becomes the vessel for the best writing in the book.
I confess I find myself drawn to Ackerson-Kiely’s prose more than to her verse. The exception is the second of the two pillars of this book, the long poem “Made to Lie Down in Green Pastures,” which if I could I would anthologize widely. Arriving at the end of the collection, this poem takes its title from Psalm 23 of the Hebrew Bible and brings the trope of the abusive man to its apex by imagining the psalm’s shepherd, the lord who makes us lie down, as a figure called “The President.” This is an intentionally allegorical President, not exactly the current United States president, more of the idea of a President, man of total authority, abuser of power. (So it is not not our forty-fifth one.) The catalyzing event of this poem is this: The President asks the poet-speaker to lie down in a green pasture, and she—for love of country—has no choice but to comply. From this simplicity, a man’s commandment and a woman’s love, the poet spins an associative lyric music of lasting brilliance.
From this conceit, delightfully and unexpectedly, Ackerson-Kiely defines her book’s movement, its poetics, its pleasures: “I am the woman with violence / all over her face and arms / but that doesn’t mean I cannot lie still.” “Sometimes my country is a dark vale / over which my President looms, / portentous, struggling at the border. / I once loved a man by covering my face.” “My President / was specific and I was a description / of Nebraska, moved through forever / like a game of monopoly or a job.” The poem reaches a lyric peak in the following lines, from which the book takes its title, a title that withholds the central questions here asked: