ADAM STRAUSS Reviews
Nomina by Karen Volkman
(BOA Editions, 2008)
Warsaw Bikini by Sandra Simonds
(Bloof Books, 2008)
Karen Volkman’s Nomina is a work whose sonnets’ flash quicksilver modifications, an impressive display of Petrarchan rhyme and, to some degree, a restricted verbal palate, so long as one reads “restricted” as willful, as could be with a painter who chooses to work within a specific degree of hues. In tandem, these aspects create a thriving culture in which elaboration leads to acceleration.
Within these consistencies, there’s a dense weave of oppositional and endlessly appositional charges. As for topics, there’s lots of death, of dying, of being bled, bled out, of hollows, states, one might have, of less; but there is also an emphasis on immense sweeps, of space in its fullest farthest dimensions, of super abundance. Attending this vastness is coldness, distance, and yet it is never fully divorced from a volcanic, vascular articulation replete with integrals tender and green.
Frequently, these poems utilize syntactic structures which delay and delay themselves through longish sentences which develop logic along the way. A crucial aspect of this mode involves an emphasis on adjectives or the adjectival. In the poem beginning “What are wounds for,” the word “hue” takes on the modifiers “scarred,” “flat,” and “phonemic.” Every image, every concept, molts and molts connecting phenomena in kinetic chains, and all of these dynamics activated by beautifully wrought rhetoric both old-fashioned and modern, as is demonstrated by a line from the sestet of the poem beginning “Name your weapon”: “Each breach is touch, each touch a flinch and spill.” This line displays a definitional logic, kin Donne’s “The Flea,” in which a key set of images or phenomena undergo fantastic metamorphosing via microtonal, logically clear increments. As with “The Flea,” instead of emphasizing the definite, the noun aspect of the world, an exploration occurs, in which a unit, in this case a “breach,” becomes an action which results in “touch,” then further bodily response, “flinch,” with its connotation of pulling quickly inward, which counters the outward dynamic already established. Yet more action results with the line culminating in “spill.” With every subsequent syllable, one witnesses mobility and motility.
The vocabulary of the line itself is excitingly restricted. On both sides of the sentence’s comma, there is “touch,” and “breach” and “spill,” although not identical, are readily relatable states as both may involve a flowing over or out above a border. Although the sentence is full of motion, of action and reaction, there’s also the sense of something developing not because it is traversing distances and entering radically different relations, but instead through intense concentration, a look at a person starting with their dermis and each successive look getting closer and closer to marrow and the manufacturing of the blood cells.
A key reason for the kinetic quality of this modifier-laden mode is the concurrent use of alliteration; the sense of elaboration is not one of stagnation but rather propulsion: These poems have acute drag and equally so drive. They look forward within their morphs and gaze back at some source. These lines from the poem beginning “A premise, a solace,” with their elaborate activation of a “garment” while always staying within the lexical bounds of dress and fallen leaves, exemplify:
A figment garment, ornament of leaves
That tip and trill and flail, kinetic sleeves
And skirt of scatter, skirting autumn’s less.
So far, a multi-tempered nature has been noted. One area in which Nomina plays it astonishingly straight is the use of a Petrarchan rhyme scheme. The sentence divisions may not match that sonnet’s form exactly at times, but the end sounds are, largely, very much in place via full-on rhyme. Better yet, some of the rhymed pairings are worth applauding if one agrees with Hopkins that the best rhymes pair words whose meanings are maximally different from one another, as in the oppositional pairing of “delete” and “complete in the sestet of the poem beginning “The sky we bear on our shoulders”:
Lidded Argus, bent Atlas--caught between
world-scar, mind-ire, exigencies that blind
and hobble-harrow, double-dwindle, delete
heaven-quotient, exceeding heaven’s mean.
The pain divisions. And x, the coldest mind,
skies the sentence, articulate, complete (15).
This use of rhyme and, often, measure as well, is a real pleasure to engage with. The Petrarchan rhyme scheme is not easy—especially if enjambment and set measure are used—but it is, arguably, the rhyme scheme more than the logic of an Italian or English sonnet (apologies to Helen Vendler and her wonderful x-rays of Shakespeare’s sonnets‘ logical structures!), the sound contours which it forms, that makes the form most legible or, at least, most gauchely delicious. Here is an octet, chosen for regularity of rhyme though, admittedly, “cry” and “sigh,” even with their modifiers, may not be variegated enough to thoroughly excite, from the poem beginning “Sleeping sister of a farther”:
Sleeping sister of a farther sky,
dropped from zenith like a tender tone,
the lucid apex of a scale unknown
whose whitest whisper is an opaque cry
of measureless frequency, the spectral sigh
you breathe, bright hydrogen and brighter zone
of fissured carbon, consummated moan
and ceaseless rapture of a brilliant why (22)
As well, Volkman’s rhymes excite because they are not in the alternating rhymes of the Shakespearean sonnet. Intellectually, the Shakespearean variant is exciting; but the rhyme pattern is blah: thinking in alternates seems predictable, or like a pattern many would readily fall into anyways, as one puts a left foot followed by a right or vice versa. But the Petrarchan scheme is anything but inevitable; the enclosed rhymes and the restricted number of rhyme sounds flaunt artifice or a nature of extreme fluency.
The bass line of Nomina is Petrarchan, and the inclusion of departures, which themselves work variations, adds interest and breaks down—or up, as it may be—the generally repetitive nature of the book. Lines from the poem starting “See the crack at the quick” illustrate a twinning of the two central sonnet forms, with the octet rhymed in Shakespearean alternates, and the sestet adhering to a standard Petrarchan rhyme scheme:
Repleted sequences of meaning spent
on fetid fruits, encased in ruptured skins.
The Scar Hypothesis--a theory meant
to stitch divisible, the fruitful sins
of cultivated conscience. If the proof--
bluest sutures in the blackest slit--
won’t round the fruit (paler flesh and paler rind),
to some hale wholeness, oval and aloof,
what grounds unearth, what propositions split
disfigured orders accident designed? (52).
At times, this repetitive tendency occurs fractally, with some of the sonnets relying on a very restricted—more even than the Petrarchan form already entails—degree of rhyme sounds. This stance is taken to an apex with the poem beginning “Bitter seed—scarred semblance—Psyche”: From the second and third stanzas of the poem, one gets:
and spends the nothing lovers’ numbing plea
It shall be if we kiss it. Stone can see
what factors fault its fathoms, ardor we
mistake for fracture. A split, a volt, a v
of vain misgiving, void’s elected be
knowing no rapture but its own redundancy.
So vowels do not die. They scale and scree…(60).
Nomina has as many gorgeous, gorgeously energetic poems within its pages as one could want. One could argue that there is too much repetition of image units—sky, for instance. Too, though, the effect can be viewed as cubist: even as motifs are iterated, many different positions, or zones, are compassed by the poems, so that the repetitions display difference.
Strikingly, difference ends up highlighting Nomina’s most consistent element—its use of two quatrains and two tercets, or the Petrarchan 8-6 split. Volkman creates a wonderful trick of the eye effect: the poems look, with one possible exception in which a poem is truncated to one foot lines—again, a fractal or telescoping effect—almost comically alike, but the minute one reads closely variety emerges, and a refiguring of what various can mean. Here are lines from the piece beginning “She goes, she is“:
She goes, she is, she wakes the waters
primed in their wave-form, a flux of urge
struck into oneness, the solid surge
seeking completion, and strikes and shatters…
“waters” and “shatters” do form an eye-rhyme, and a rough assonance or approximate rhyme; the pair could qualify in this age of very loosely, even loosely slanted, rhymes. But in the following quatrain one gets—and with the enclosed rhymed maintained—”daughters” and “scatters” so pronounced sonic connection, despite its being sent off kilter, is not slackened. It is a pleasure to read work which, again and again, working a wild fluency, capitalizes on the potentials of swerving from conventions with Baroque gusto as opposed to emerging out of default or its environs. Volkman puts on a show, makes of reading, as Andrew Marvell knows in his poem “The Gallery” and as Elizabeth Bishop writes in “The Colder the Air,” a site where “air’s gallery marks identically/the narrow gallery of her glance.”
Sandra Simonds’ first book, Warsaw Bikini, has little overtly in common with Nomina, but the one trait they share is crucial: both works are exemplars of linguistic energy. In her work, Simonds tries on the world and finds innumerable fits. Dress becomes address. There is a well-developed, talkative tone present throughout the poems, but the sense of a singular speaker is not cultivated at the expense of a diverse sense of the world. As Simonds writes in “Writing my Bike in Circles Around This Poem To Prove That I Persist”: I’m just/the mouthpiece that keeps the poem agog.” Again and again in this work, one image doesn’t become modified indefinitely so much as mutated. The effect is comparable to watching sugar turn to caramel. And even the word image is inadequate: every image in Warsaw Bikini becomes an image complex, a living nexus where sensation continually erupts. Lines from the opening poem, “I Serengeti You,” illustrate this dynamic:
In the covered wagon of the corpus collosum
Traveled to Coca Island, my mind’s coliseum
Sliding off your mansion’s
Cedar banister wowed superstellar monks a high altitude kiss
Where the prevailing winds
Clipped their yak-butter-colored robes.
These lines are one sublime fluid crackle that need to be read slowly, analytically, but which are difficult to approach through such a stance as the images keep coming, sweeping a reader into far out reaches as if such velocities are logical; and they are. Most notably, there is scale and an embedded, folded quality to existence. The “covered wagon” is “of the corpus collosum,” presumably a humorous trope for a human, so scale is rendered contrary: the “wagon” could be imagined as smaller than the “corpus collosum,” with its suggestion of colossal, but assuming one’s dealing with the sort that carried setters across prairies, this would not be the case. The ultimately more denotative reading may be to view the “of” as marking the wagon’s status as being possessed by a person, and this economic inflection resonates with a highlighting of scale: ownership, capitalist circulation, renders scale strange: humans, small in physical stature and number, can own vast tracts of land, or damn a river and charge people for the electricity harnessed, as if the logic of geology and that of patents are inherently commensurate and not made identical through questionable political yoking.
Logic in Simonds‘ poems becomes multivalent, but there’s foundational legibility to the torques, so that structural observation and not primarily intuition produces the most resonance. The charmingly exaggerated term for the human carriage, “corpus collosum,” with its ironic collapsing of size, is ghosted by the word “coliseum,” so irony stops being ironic, to a degree, as the two words are both positioned as the final words of their consecutive lines, emphasizing their similar cast. One’s “carriage” is indeed a frame for the drama of perception.
Scale is further explored, torqued, expanded, by the power dynamic within the first person’s relation to the second. Rosmarie Waldrop, in an interview with Mathew Cooperman published in the Denver Quarterly, posits that the relation between those two pronouns generally holds the “I” to be of more consequence. Simonds, from the third line till the end of this passage, reverses this convention: her speaker’s “coliseum” is so dwarfed by the “mansion” of the second person possessive that it can slide down a “cedar banister” in one room of this dwelling’s interior, so if size is any gauge of importance then Simond’s first person possessive is quite slight indeed. The logical amplification continues as it is this “banister” which “wowed superstellar monks a high altitude kiss.” That something clearly at a lower elevation should wow something so starry is, like the tweaking of first versus second person power plays, delightful. The final twist to scale occurs with the “high altitude kiss.” Tibetan plateau winds—Tibet is an unstated locale but plausible given the detail “yak-butter-colored robes“—suggest vast howlings, yet they’re rendered into a kiss, to an intimate scale, and of course kisses are usually, air kisses aside, an activity predicated on proximity, and yet this one is anything but.
At the same time as there’s a kind of alternating current occurring to conventional relations in these lines, there’s also a spectacular outward energy: one starts with a “my” in, I imagine, Florida and ends up with monks become actual though being situated, through the attributes accorded a robe, in a place or, more accurately, an imagefest. One ends up with a single subjectivity, and ends up with separate figures thousands of miles away. I adore how these lines don’t stop at first-person experience even as that state engines the perception.
It should be noted that I have, to a great degree, been treating the nouns of these lines rather literally, when they are expressed via metaphoric, no, metamorphic, figurations. My reasoning for this is this: yes, the island seems like it should be Coco not “Coca,” palmy stretches of white sand not cut-rate powder from Mexico, but either way one is left with a plausible Florida, one of the mind and of newspapers plus maybe even parodic postcards. As well, to return to the lines’ final heights, the world evoked in the modifiers is accurate to an actual place befitting the personage. And the fusion of practically speaking to visionary may be a fit allusion to Epcot Center, to a microcosm where continents can be traveled to by crossing the asphalt. True, these poems were, primarily, written while Simonds lived in Tallahassee, where she still resides, and the capitol may indeed carry a very different set of inflections, but these dazzling poems don’t necessarily make clear the reality of a single life so much as realities possible to construe from any number of empirically possible options. The result is fantastic but the fantasy is totally grounded, utterly of this earth. Like the earth and its ellipsis, these poems never stop moving.
Sometimes, as in the case of the poem “Bon Voyage,” the journey initially evoked is as brief as one part of one’s body to another. But the passage is slow and meditative though of course energetically so:
The path from the throat
to the nipple is too long
a journey to take without
handkerchief and water
train--pulse sack of meat,
metal and nail
because my flesh is an artificial
field of feel where each cell… (33).
This journey torques conventional notions of journeying. All one needs is some water and a hanky, not a big pack and maybe a horse or a plane ticket. But in these lines, as always, we’re in a new scale, so the old trappings of travel, like a train for example, must be abandoned: “so goodbye/bulky red//train.” Beautifully, the train is simultaneously not abandoned. Instead, Simonds and her rejected transport merge, forming the soldering of oppositional impulses. A train is in part constructed from metal, and surely there’s some nailings, so it’s only natural that a human body should be connected to this track, as we have toe and fingernails, and metallic traces in our blood, our “pulse sack of meat.” The title says goodbye, but the journey itself creates a chiasmatic circuit proving opposites at most as appositives. The bond pointing to flesh as artificial is direct, but this leads, and with drive, as emphasized by the enjambment of “artificial/field of feel,” to the assertion that what’s “artificial” is natural, with “field” and “feel” both denoting organic phenomena. And this “field” and “feel” are further conjoined via the aural overlap of e sounds and alliteration (including the penultimate syllable of the word artificial which springs forth the field in the first place), so the phrase constitutes an ecology of letters and their properties. These lines delightfully demonstrate that dynamics cannot be extricated from one another. The perceiving body is amazingly of a piece. That the poem is a single sentence is fitting, and shows how the pleats of a sentence can enfold myriad sensations, states, and categories of existence.
In “Ponce De Leon As Floridaphile” (surely this title justifies positing Florida as the presiding genius of these poems, and with a wink towards Stevens), one can see a return to Simonds’ distinctive mode of fluid cramming:
He’s going to have to try harder to find where rhizomes meet
mice turn to glass, pass
the nuclear age with her slither hair
turns the mirror
white and howling.”
The opening lines interfold multiple reading options. The he of the poem can try harder to find “where rhizomes meet” and where “rhizomes meet mice.” Then, with the enjambment into the next line, one gets “where rhizomes meet/mice turn to glass” so what starts as a depiction emphasizing the action demanded of the he turns into an emphasis on what he is looking at and how it has an energetic existence of its own. The “turn” of the second line, too, is notable for its encapsulating more than one way of perceiving reality. The mice may have “turned to” glass as an alchemical byproduct of the rhizomes having met them, or it could be that upon meeting rhizomes, the mice then position themselves, as agents, such that they’re looking at glass and passing time with “her slither hair” which, funnily, turns the mirror itself “howling” not the person looking in the mirror. Mirrors are supposed to enable seeing one’s reflection, but be afforded no perceptual status themselves; Simonds’ mirror, of course, can. And it’s not difficult to see how this agency of the typically inanimate is arrived at: when one looks in the mirror after a shower, the glass is often fogged up, turning a transparent surface clouded, or “white,” and this fogged quality may therefore suggest breath, or a “howl.” Wonderfully, Simonds uses the participial form, whereas she could have turned the mirror into a white howl, arrested it into a one-time occurrence as opposed to implying that the mirror may be reacting this way more regularly. A striking image is not aligned with exceptionalism, but instead with daily reality. To return to a way of reading the mice: they, because they themselves are glass, may actually be part of what constitutes the mirror looking at the “slither hair.” These lines are so exciting because they show how the world is made up of so many agents: the rhizomes, the mice, the “slither hair” and the mirror effect changes. Engagingly, though, the mirror never occupies a grammatical subject position, so its importance is minimized even as its scope appears significant. However, a traditional understanding of what constitutes a subject may be inadequate here: existence seems to be predicated on interactions. No one element is shown to dominate how a scene plays out; no singularity can master a situation.
Volkman and Simonds, via distinct, fully realized modes, display excitements of language. Without abandoning the importance of lived experience, of perceptions predicated on fleshly existence, these two splendidly related but not particularly similar books make clear that for poetry to press powerfully on a reader, it is first and foremost language and linguistic constructions which must be present. The worlds, the various realities constituting the topos of the poems, are ultimately profoundly absent: one has no cloud or glass, soil or blood or actual human body, only ink printed on paper. But with lyrics so alive with/through words, syntax, line, sound, extraordinary presence is what registers.
Adam Strauss lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, after being in Las Vegas for nine years. He has a full-length poetry collection, For Days, out with BlazeVox, and chapbooks published by BlazeVox, Scantily Clad Press, Birds of Lace, and free poetry for; too, he has poems in the anthology The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, and forthcoming in one titled Devouring the Green. Additionally, he has had reviews published in Interim, the Colorado Review, and Word For/Word. Lastly, he is in the midst of a prose-poem collaboration with Galatea Resurrects contributor John Bloomberg-Rissman.