Ann Townsend’s third collection, Dear Delinquent—her first in fifteen years—opens with an epigraph from Beatriz de Dia: “How excessively I love,” which also provides the first poem its title and some of its content:
My heart, my eyes, my nimble
mind, bel amics, fairest friend and foe,
when will you bow to me?
Fitting, as the poems here concern themselves with love’s limits and constituent parts: sex, marriage, desire, touch. The latter especially; in fact, so much in Townsend’s verse attends to the tactile, as is the case in “Millay’s Hair”:
I shouldn’t have touched it, but in those days
I was always hungry. Despite the rare books
librarian lurking, I set my thumb against it.
Weightless, dusty, it warmed at my touch.
Time collapses wonderfully in this poem. The speaker—a poet, one assumes—swallows the hair of another, Edna St. Vincent Millay, nearly seven decades dead. Here, Townsend’s speaker conflates touch with appetite, which works, as longing is a gesture, a striving toward something. In this case, however, the longing is consummated, “it warmed at my touch,” and the speaker affirms the act: “Really, was I wrong to swallow it?” Maybe, but good poetry favors investigation over judgement, and the image lingers—is there anything more outrageously tactile than the act of tricophagia?
“Millay’s Hair” is funny and sharp, but the poem relies too much on the novelty of its images, the incongruity of its climax. That can be said of many poems in this collection, including “The Late Ash Trees” whose speaker, “about to inflict phenomenology / upon the oak trees,” instead catalogues the transit of stuff—leaves, pollen, birds, bugs—through nearby woods. That phenomenology, and all our critical definitions thereby, is something we “inflict” on the world, that the world suffers for our observations, for our signification and meaning-making, is a powerful notion. I like the self-deprecation implicit in the word “inflict”; lyric poetry so often allows its first-person speakers excessive authority. But then come these lines: “Behind me, butterflies self-immolating / on the compost heap.” Where “inflict” was funny, this image is, at best, merely clever. At worst, it is inaccurate; the butterflies are gathering around the compost, not disappearing into it. The image’s novelty obliterates its potential and its tenor. Another poem, “The Mind is its Own Place,” indulges thus:
injection of adrenaline
into the bloodstream
delivers the dissident
fuel I crave for the mind’s
pleasure, and for its pain.
Call it one song indispensable
to trouble the branching
It takes a keen ear to muster a clause as tight as “to trouble the branching // arteries.” But the accretion of “-in/ine” analogues in the first three lines are an easy music that’s more catalogue than analysis. True, brain chemistry is sensitive stuff, and those subject to its chronic imbalances suffer tremendously. There is, however, something semantically repellant about “dissident fuel.” The pairing possesses surprise, one of the unspoken elements of great poetry, but not the kind worth savoring. Is this fuel for dissidents, or is the fuel itself dissident? This isn’t a question a careful reader should need to puzzle out.
The collection does enjoy decisively satisfying moments. Like these lines from the close of “Here Be Dragons”:
so body from body sadly divided
we left our own haze of pity
and pleasure behind until one day
it was rendered like this: that first
you knew me for my words alone,
and now I sing of all I’d rather not.
The lines manage an uncommon clarity. “The View from Inside” sings as well, gleefully alliterative with its clusters of consonants: “Like the burr-encased / sycamore seed, she curled / in her cocoon of pharmaceuticals.” The best of the bunch is “Jeopardy,” a poem about risk that takes many. “What’s disaster’s baseline / etymology?” it asks. The answer comes two lines before: “my own bad star.” (The –aster in “disaster” comes from astrum, the Latin word for “star.”) That’s deft work, but one doesn’t need a dictionary on hand to puzzle out the kinetic heft of the following:
to lurk in halls, fuck in haste,
write self-lacerating verse.
This poem plays on the competing aims of eros, which twins satisfaction and harm, the feral and the domestic. The poem ends on this cunning diminuendo:
I’m bright, you’d pinch me
twice, irradiated by the TV’s
disastrous, devolving twilight.
There’s a careful symmetry to these lines, in how “bright” so elegantly anticipates “twilight,” the rhyme almost imperceptibly delayed. The discrete formal architecture of the poem allows a circuitry of meanings; “bright” and “twilight” pair beautifully, and yield a fruitful paradox. “Jeopardy” succeeds because it unsettles and enchants. It shows Townsend at her best and most dexterous, a poet keen to conjure and construct, to challenge love and language on her own terms.
There’s a moment in Paisley Rekdal’s fifth and most recent collection, Nightingale, that neatly summarizes its concerns:
I was happy here once, as were you.
I wanted to stay and grieve in the failing world
where we were human together.
(“Telling the Wasps”)
Rekdal’s poems are elegies, salves and screeds against time, by turns time-haunted and allusive. These poems conflate imagined, literary, and historical moments, and they elide, when necessary, the past and the present. “Horn of Plenty,” for instance, conjures a gallery exhibit, and gives it a title from the Iliad: “Freighted with Dark Pains.” Its centerpiece, a sculpture of a goat from a “once fertile nation that your country has invaded,” serves to motivate the speaker’s impulse toward pity:
only the arrow
delivers sorrow, only the arrow aches
as it rips through skin and muscle into the tender
flank of the animal you are even now
stroking in your arms. How can you not
hush and cluck at her, soothing this goat
the way you’d soothe the fears of anyone
These lines achieve some rare victories, as when the poem’s speaker animates that “aching” arrow with something close to remorse (or maybe it aches toward some inevitable, violent consummation). Then there’s that exquisite and primitive mercy for the suffering goat, one coherent beyond the regular capabilities of spoken language; “cluck,” an unspecified, almost non-lexical sound—the kind a chicken might make—packs an unexpected emotional wallop.
The greatest virtue of these poems is in their capacity to transport. Here’s a run from the end of “Four Marys”:
The woman stands, straightens,
and I see her mouth thin to a not unpleasant line
as she looks out at me, calculating, perhaps,
the time until lunch as she tugs at the waist
of her linen pants. The yellow pleats sag, slack
at her belly. The weight from a pregnancy
she never lost, perhaps, or the thickening
that comes to anyone, in the later part of life.
Three sinuous sentences that are an exercise in contrasts: a longish first, needling its way through the better part of five lines, followed by the short, declarative second, and its crackling, jagged consonants: “The yellow pleats sag, slack.” The poem closes on a fragment, which acts as a coda to the previous one, showing what those sagging pleats might signify. In delaying the expectations of regular syntax, Rekdal invigorates her language with the kind of ambiguity we expect from speech, without deferring to the language of monologue or undue chattiness.
Rekdal also risks outright cruelty. Take this brutal imperative from “The Wolves”:
She was, at times, in great pain. We wanted her
to die, too. That was important. But first
we wanted her to remember.
Or this revelation from twelfth section of “Gokstadt/Ganymede,” a sequence of sonnets near the center of this collection:
What you sensed, what I hated:
some part of me loved you, not in spite of,
but because you had been raped.
These lines work because memory and love, respectively, are (to put it mildly) fraught, and overburdened with assumptions. Cruelty, when deployed with this kind of uncompromising, declarative honesty, evades cliché. And this cruelty is often mitigated by moments of uncanny grace. Here’s how “Gokstadt/Ganymede” ends:
In time, I’ll meet you here again: my ship’s berth
swaddled in birch bark, stuffed with mosses.
Fragment from some mute, irredeemable past:
another mouth sewn closed against a tide of earth.
The density and deployment of related images—ship to tide, bark to moss to earth—helps Rekdal construct a matrix of competing meanings. Time, this poem seems to say, exercises ambiguity; these imagined things are happening “in time,” and something like peace—deathly silence—awaits the speaker, nirvana by corpse-light. That’s not an easy answer; this collection offers none. Its comforts are cold, measured, often abstract, but deeply felt, and expressed with an uncommon lyricism, its language threaded through “that strange way of beauty.”