Things of Value

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.

I did not expect to be noticed. You might say
I hungered to be noticed, but kept from myself
that black freckle on this otherwise pale plain,
the place on the body one touches alone
and unconsciously, lying in the pasture, just lying
all of the time as my President requested.

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:

The President asked, please wait your turn.
But who can be patient, Mister President,
for the quiet waters?
So I circled the defensive wall,
the outworks and the earthworks—
dolefully a rampart stands, but how does she lie?

The rampart, the poet reveals, is gendered female. Would it be strange to read this question as an act of redemption? To see in this speaker’s persistence, her inquisitiveness, a reparative reading of the women’s deaths this book chronicles? If for a rampart to stand is sorrowful, might there be some other emotional register for its—her—fall? I’m not sure. But it is a thing worth thinking over.

“A word is not an easy thing, it is not a light thing,” Dionne Brand writes toward the end of her latest book The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos, which itself is neither easy nor light. It is an ars poetica of over two hundred pages, one very long poem divided into fifty-nine “versos” or prose fragments, and fragments of fragments; as an ars poetica it explores something like a process of collaboration within a single mind, a collaboration between different sensibilities in one self.

Brand is an accomplished and prolific Canadian writer, author of many books of poetry and prose, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2011 for her book Ossuaries. The American publisher of The Blue Clerk is Duke University Press, perhaps best known for its rigorous scholarly monographs and works of critical theory, and maybe this is why I couldn’t help but approach Brand’s book as a work of lyric criticism or philosophy. And these poems have scholarly rigor; where Paige Ackerson-Kiely makes use of elements of the short story, Brand makes use of what we commonly consider the apparatus of criticism: citation of and reference to other writers, an extensive index, a rhetoric of authority, the general feeling of the conveyance of knowledge, not just (or not only) the interrogation of a self and its world. In an attempt to describe the genre-queerness of this book, its jacket flap calls the versos “essay poems,” and that seems as good a name as any.

The central conceit of Brand’s ars poetica is this: the author has within her a figure called the blue clerk, whose job it is to archive the things, the material, within the author that are described variously as “unsaid” or “withheld,” “left-hand pages” that exist in the author unwritten. They are the clerk’s domain. The author is in constant dialogue with the clerk, in a kind of argument about what of the left-hand pages should be revealed or paid attention to. The author is something of an optimist—“I choose the presentable things, the beautiful things,” she says. Whereas the clerk keeps track of things unpresentable and unbeautiful, the city under the city that “heaves deep signs of bigotry”; the clerk has “polemical frenzy”; “Her notebook is sleepless.”

The cynical clerk notes, in her cynical English, all the author has elided, the diagonal animosities and tiers of citizenship. The author wants a cosmopolitan city. Nothing wrong with that. But the clerk who orbits her skull has to deal with all the animus.

Thus Brand, who was born in Trinidad, describes a way of knowing familiar to many people of the Black diaspora and people of color more widely: a simultaneous argument for the world’s beauty and its violence and oppression. As Brand phrases it, “I am writing my way out of a nightmare, the author says. I am caught in a nightmare, the clerk says. Everyone knows how things get done in the world.” By the end of the collection, the author comes to something like an epiphany, a realization of how these two fragments of a self might fit together instead of pull apart: “I am not really in life, the author says. I am really a voyeur. But the part of me that is in life is in pain all the time. That’s me, says the clerk. You watch, I feel.”

All throughout, Brand experiments beautifully in the textures of her language. Not every verso has an essayistic discursiveness. Many delight in their fragmentedness, in the blue clerk’s left-hand murmuring. Like Anne Carson, Brand’s directness is most pleasurable at its most strange and surprising: “I heard quarrel, quarrel, quarrel underfoot, when you walked”; “always a policeman and a hyphen”; “a silver-struck enjambment of regret.” One of my favorite versos has the author (the clerk does not approve of nostalgia) recalling a memory of her Caribbean childhood:

If I see a patch of flowers near a road, surviving heat and exhaust fumes and boots, a homesickness washes me and I am standing in the front yard looking at zinnias. […] The circumstances in the house behind, the material circumstances, inlay this homesickness. I am homesick for zinnias; I am homesick for scarcity. These two same things.

This moment sings as one of only a few in which the author, or the poet, lets us see some emotional context to the ongoing argument with the clerk. It is subtle, this homesickness for scarcity, but affecting, hard to forget. And the twinning of zinnias and scarcity nicely echoes the other two “same things” that are the book’s core concern.

The Blue Clerk’s length and depth make it a challenging read, perhaps best experienced slowly, or dipped into whimsically. Many individual versos stand alone, startling and memorable. As a gathering of such versos, the book adds vital thought to the discourse of how, all the queer improbable ways, writing is made. It illustrates and illuminates this striking fragment from Deleuze, which Brand includes between versos nine and ten: “And why do I see these things why do I know these things why must I endure seeing and knowing.”

Katie Ford knows the etymology of the word thing. One of the thirty-nine sonnets in the sequence “The Addresses,” the core and essence of If You Have to Go, begins like this:

By candlelight the house went down.
It’s no wonder the rats won’t come sleep
in my newly rented corners … for me, a gathering
of low creatures would be luminous, a concordant, a thing.

Ford’s diction is always exacting, busy with all kinds of underground etymological importance, rewarding a reader who takes pains with, and pleasure from, obscure dictionaries. At one point the speaker of “The Addresses” says “I owe a trental now,” which the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages tells me is a series of thirty masses or prayers said following a death. In Ford’s case, the trental might be these sonnets themselves, following as they do the death of a relationship.

This makes thing one of Ford’s essential words. Its apparent simplicity usefully masks some deeper mystery. The “thing” in the stanza quoted above lands at the end of the quatrain with startling importance. What is it that would be luminous about a gathering of low creatures? To be a “concordant,” from the Latin, is to be “of one mind.” A gathering of multiple beings becomes luminous when it acts as if it were one. This being of one mind is important for Ford, because the central subject of If You Have to Go is an account of how two people, a couple, might fall out of concordance, might fail to become a thing.

“The Addresses” in particular traces a lover’s devotional solitude through the dissolution of a long-term relationship, a fraught cohabitation (the poems never use the words marriage or divorce). “Love lays me on the rack. My desire’s all gone wrong,” the speaker of these sonnets says. “I think grief’s worse struck against a single chest. // I’ll retch now over my ground. / Luckily nobody, not anybody’s, around.” I describe the speaker’s solitude as devotional because the addressee of “The Addresses” is an essential absence. Recalling the book’s title, the You who has had to Go is gone even before he physically leaves, and from within the speaker’s solitude, her addresses take on a rhetoric not unlike prayer.

As Roland Barthes describes this sort of devotional/amorous subject in A Lover’s Discourse, Ford’s speaker is “wedged between two tenses”: “you have gone (which I lament), you are here (since I am addressing you).” In Ford’s words:

We’ve made you, but don’t misunderstand:
You were you and we try words for you.
The making made a sick wreck of you—
me, too—me, too—
Did I sing, did I wrongly?—Yes.
Did I, did I wrongly want?

Ford’s discourse disquiets. The music here is Plath-like with its monosyllables obsessively repeating. (The “you” rhymes remind me of “Daddy.”) Elsewhere, as the sonnets move through their expected quatrains and their expected couplets, it becomes clear that concordance, coherence, thing-ness, will remain slippery or altogether out of grasp. Ford’s syntax, by turns clipped and wildly roaming, betrays the speaker’s trouble. The sentences don’t follow exactly from one another. Referents remain unclarified. Stanzas, appearing formally decorous—they even sometimes rhyme!—craze with cracks. The speaker’s attention fixates on strange, seemingly tangential things, like a wooden hairbrush carved with horses, the aforementioned rats, a stranger swimming in the sea, or God.

All goes to gone. God of my childhood,
with your attendant monstrosities,
I will not say you’ve given me a terrified silence,
nor absence, nor presence, nor the sun red and down,
whose going you can’t protect. Let me,
dusky godsend, never believe you protect.

Devotion is not protection in these poems, on the contrary. Prayer will not save; there is no safekeeping to be found in language or in love.
The poet-speaker’s two tenses, absence and presence, mix and make unbearable her present.

I wish I could leave me.
I can’t even know if the horses are for me
or against me, of me or in me,
beside or despite me—
are they gods?
or mangy beasts?

Yet despite the main amorous conceit of “The Addresses,” I am taken by how many different forms of you the sonnets address, lover and gods and mangy beasts alike, including many yous mysterious. It is important that Ford does not permit the sequence to conclude with something like a satisfying solution. It ends, instead, with our heroine (as I think of her) still solitary, but in a new home. In the final sonnet, her address is, ostensibly, to the birds in her persimmon tree.

No contingency between us, no. Intimacy
is no promise but that we’re alive a little together.
At dawn you undo my bedroom silence
and my emptiness isn’t,
is not all mine to tend.
It’s not traceable,
but to feel its radiance
maybe is all, maybe is everything

What is untraceable and radiant here, for Ford, is not intimacy but emptiness. That which both “isn’t” and “is.” The end of “The Addresses” arrives four lines after this, but for some reason, reader, I feel compelled not to spoil it for you. It’s hard to imagine a sonnet sequence needing a spoiler alert, especially one as interior and meditative as Ford’s, yet I feel it; the sequence builds to something unexpected that must not be given or taken too easily.

There are other poems in If You Have to Go outside this sonnet sequence, but only seven. While they help to provide context for the poet’s style and concerns, it is the amorous devotional poetics of “The Addresses,” its engagement with the self’s intimate emptiness, that is here Ford’s most enduring achievement.

Miller Oberman’s The Unstill Ones opens with a vision of an ancient language, reanimated and brought to bear on the poet-speaker’s emotional etymologies, his constant un-stillness, which he seeks to contain in words and things:

Horses, he had read, are a joy to the un-still ones.
The pages turned in him. Horse,
meaning, to run. From the days
when a thing was what it did,
the act of naming itself a desire
for stillness, for containment.
(“Night Watch”)

Thus Oberman sets us riding, searching for stillness. His affinity for kennings, the prefix “un,” and, like Ford, a deep knowledge of the ancient bones of the English language follow the reader across all the poems in this collection. As do horses, as does grief and love and pleasure. While Oberman’s skill with Old English (of which he is a translator and scholar) affords his language a particular beauty, his grief is contemporary, punctuated or perhaps adorned with a certain un-still fact declaimed in the book’s masterpiece, the poem “On Trans”: “The process of through is ongoing.”

The “process of through” is a trans process (“through” being one definition of the prefix), a process in which things change. “I was just leaving, / which is to say, coming / elsewhere. Transient. I was going as I came, the words / move through my limbs, lungs, mouth, as I appear to sit // peacefully at your hearth transubstantiating some wine.” The pleasure Oberman takes here in the many facets of the prefix is palpable. It is by this pleasure that we come to feel the heat of the hearth, the heat of the change. It is not necessarily a change readers, even trans readers, might be familiar with. Or it is, but the poem’s goal is to queer even this queerness. Here, transgender is a verb: “I was / transgendering and drinking […] The translucence of flames beat against the air / against our skins. […]

I felt heat changing me.  The word for this is
transdesire, but in extreme cases we call it transdire
or when this heat becomes your maker we say
transire, or when it happens in front of a hearth:

We watch the poet-speaker move from desire to dire to sire to fire and this movement feels, although wobbly, precise. The language changes as we do, as the speaker does, drinking wine in front of a hearth admiring the “transcendent” beauty of another. Interesting, the word that would follow in this lexical process, a word as present as it is unannounced: the maker’s ire. The transfire that makes this speaker and is made by him ignites this collection. (Is it also of his ire, and will it consume, propel, or illuminate him?)

The process of through is ongoing. Language changes, but doesn’t leave. Or by leaving, Oberman reminds us, it is only “coming / elsewhere.” This is an apt a description of Oberman’s translation poetics. One of the pleasures of this book is the pairing of conventional translations of Old English poems (many of which come from the tenth-century Exeter Book) with more transgressive poems written “after” the original, what Oberman in his notes calls poems he both “translated and reacted to.”

For example, consider Oberman’s dual treatment of the Exeter Book poem “Wulf and Eadwacer.” Oberman in his notes points out how no one is really sure what this poem is about. His translation seeks to smooth out this strangeness, to make arguments about its coherence; Oberman’s translation is not a story about wolves, as some apparently think of the original, but of a woman elegizing a lover named Wulf from whom she is separated. Here is a stanza from his translation:

Wulf is on one island  I am on another
That island is fixed fast  cast about by fens
There are carnage-covered  men on that island
They will consume him  in violence if he comes

Whereas, in the poet’s reaction, he permits strangeness, uncertainty—an important openness for which the word thing is essential—and we are given not a version of the original but access to an experience of reading it, which I find much more valuable. Here is an excerpt of the poet’s reaction, given the same title:

Then there is either
an eagle or a cruelty, or cruelty
to the woman has always seemed
inseparable from eagles, or the
one who copied her poem
suffered from partial blindness
and wrote the wrong word
entirely. Certainly sharp-edged
things, carnage, slaughter.

The gap between translation and reaction is wide and sharp-edged. As is the gap between the translation of and reaction to “The Ruin.” The tenth-century original remembers, or imagines, the life that went on in a castle city before “death swept away all the sword-brave men.” Oberman’s reaction instead remembers the life of a twenty-first-century ruin: an abandoned warehouse next to a polluted canal, location of a queer dance party, where “Someone with hair made entirely / of peacock feathers starts the generator, / plugs a mic into an amp, and after the electric squeals the cord, rasps / we are here, we are here // We open the cathedrals of our chests and roar.”

The collection’s moments of queer intimacy and pride, like this, are beautiful and heartwarming, but often more subtle. In the Hart Crane-invoking “Voyages” at the end of the collection, it is the poet-speaker’s own body that inspires this intimacy. It is the first time the book makes explicit (or, as Oberman might phrase it, unsubtle) the “transgendering” of “On Trans”:

What my mother and father,
body together with body,
made, I can not. Can jet
no living material. Too
private, too lowly to write?

It is a moment of powerful vulnerability, not because of what the speaker discloses, but because he does it with fidgety enjambment, the awkward space between “can” and “not” and the brilliant adverb “lowly,” hedged with self-consciousness. No, it is not lowly; it is—also a brilliant word—jetting, transcendent. The speaker comes to this conclusion himself:

If what
comes from me is not life, it is
also not not life. Let me be
open as a vowel, wave-glazed.

To be “open as a vowel,” for this poet so attentive to the emotional resonances in the material of language, is “a kingly thing” (“The Ruin”). It is to be expressible, open to the intimacy of another’s breath, able to be taken up and spoken. Spoken language cannot exist without vowels. In that way, maybe to be “open as a vowel” is to move out of a thingly existence, if a thing is, as Latour says, “out of language.” I have tried in this review to make the word thing interesting as a choice of language, but maybe Oberman here rebukes me. Or maybe he offers me a way out of my obsession. There are other ways, other words, with which to open.

C.J.A. is a California-based poet, critic, and essayist. His writing has appeared in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and publications including ZYZZYVA, Boston Review, and Columbia Journal. He is a regular reviewer for this magazine.