Home » criticism, Poetry

All the Questions

Where We Think It Should Go

By Claire Becker
Octopus Books 2010

“Find Earth/ on a globe/ which is not the Earth” Claire Becker writes in her debut collection Where We Think
It Should Go
, and these lines serve to encapsulate the book: you cannot actualize what you cannot conceive. The poems in Becker’s collection toy with the reader
in the same way an iceberg toys with an ocean liner, because syntactically Becker relies on inner mystery rather than overt proclamation. From “Young Adult,”
the chapbook- length selection that appears as the book’s centerpiece of sorts:

If you’re lonely
You’re expressing your choice

I talk you out of it
Your dark choice

To turn the lights off
Get in bed

With the dogs
In the bed

Choose the known
What the other knows

Frown
And read the phone for a while

Although the speaker here is ostensibly simply reiterating the mundanity of any “Young Adult’s” choices in our rapid-fire society, s/he is simultaneously reinforcing the notion that to be certain is to be suspect, and to “Choose the known/ What the other knows” is to either guess, to extrapolate something based on possibly faulty data, or to open yourself up to the other’s knowing. ‘“Reticent” for reluctant”/ Reductive or myself” and “I don’t like/ Some optimism” are two further contentions the speaker of “Young Adult” makes, and the poem as a whole masterfully embodies the nature of the middle-class twenty something in America today—fervently passionate about some issues yet simultaneously unsure about who s/he really is (or can be). Becker’s muddled and quickly shifting viewpoints and perspectives in the work reinforce this sense of uncertainty.

Yet Becker’s Where We Think It Should Go is far from just another example of the poetics of indeterminacy, which often dissolve into language games. Rather, indeterminacy springs from the tension between the cognitive and the intuitive, and both of these are as valued as they are held in suspicion. And for many of the speakers in the volume definitiveness is something that cannot be readily achieved, nor in all likelihood is it desired. You make do with what you have at your disposal. “What is called a language library/ and next to that sincerity/ forming unfamily in the moat” reads the second stanza of “Moat”; “At a solstice party, / I focused on relationships/ with strangers. What I sounded / like, what the silence sounded. / We had an orange orbiting a candle. / I asked all questions” ends one of the sections of “Fish Eagle,” the final poem in the collection. Both stanzas are illuminating here for their gestures of refusal: sincerity of language is not a thing of earnestness but of “unfamily”; what the speaker sounds like in “Fish Eagle” is the same thing as what the silence—noiselessly—sounds, and s/he asks “all questions” yet gets no substantial answers by virtue of the section’s abrupt end. Instead, the speaker is left with only a sense of possibility and for Becker this is not a bad thing; it has the prospect of being tantalizing, fulfilling and/or profound. And the fact that the speaker’s realization (or lack thereof) is made at a “solstice party” is noteworthy in that the solstice is when the sun comes to a brief standstill before reversing directions, and like the sun “Fish Eagle’s” speaker is at a crossroads, unsure of hirself with regards to so many “relationships / with strangers.” And yet, paradoxically, that same speaker is seemingly comforted by this fact.

Many of the poems in Where We Think It Should Go also deal with the often problematic relationship between mind and the body, one that is nearly as mystifying now as it was thousands of years ago when it was debated by Socrates in the Lyceum. “Physical Space in the Notebook,” the third poem in the book, states:

I want to make a pact,

a pact with me.
Let’s mistrust everyone.
It’s raining in the body.

Cleaning, cleaning out.
Beautiful for the next ten days in the body,
sunny, seventy degrees.

We’ll be no longer ourselves
pulling one another
from the trees to walk.

When we walk like zombies
one hundred people turn.
But the pact is dumb,

we must tell
it how we love
to stop the past.

The poem’s speaker desires to make a “pact” with hirself, but besides that fact Becker again shies away from direct statement. Lines such as “Cleaning, cleaning out. / Beautiful for the next ten days in the body” suggest that the speaker is undergoing a fast or cleanse of some sort, one designed to rid the body of so many of the toxins and chemicals that it directly and indirectly encounters, day in, day out. Although the speaker of the poem undertakes a “cleaning” trial in good faith, there is a hesitancy that belies the nature of that faith; the pact made with the self is “dumb” due to the fact that mind and body here simply aren’t speaking the same language. And as the mind makes a conscious effort to better the physical properties of the body it resides in, the body lurches around “like zombies”; as the body is “Beautiful for the next ten days, / sunny, seventy degrees” the mind attempts to come to terms with the fact that after the “cleaning” is over it will no longer understand the body in the same way it once did. Later in the poem, then, both mind and body “dumb” the pact they made with each other.

Attempting to balance both physical and mental halves, the speaker of “Physical Space in the Notebook” comes to no resolutions, no life-changing epiphanies. The cleanse lasts ten day and is then over. Dumb, the pact that s/he makes is not a binding one, and in the end its only redeeming characteristic is that it forces hir to recognize the fact that what might initially seem warranted and appropriate− If I don’t eat for ten days everything will be better, mind and body! — might turn out to be wholly unenduring in the end. “Change doesn’t have/ choice. Get inner” Becker writes in a poem entitled “Get You” later on in the collection. And, again, you can’t change what you haven’t completely come to terms with in the first place, something that “Physical Space in the Notebook’s” speaker realizes only after the fact. In his blurb for the collection the poet Graham Foust—who taught Becker at St. Mary’s College of California and has had a subtle influence on her work—declares that Becker’s poems seem written out of the desire “to know a thing” that disappears almost as quickly as it arrives. Becker’s work often ends up “in the most impossible places” according to Foust. This seems true, if only because so many of the poems in Where We Think It Should Go are unwilling to put on overly intellectual or poetic airs, as it were; what “thing” one does or does not know oftentimes ends up being a moot point in her work. Instead, it is the sensations during each and every experience that are just as important—if not more so—as the experience itself. Becker’s poetry thus reaches “the most impossible places” incrementally, in small (albeit substantive) enactments. And as readers make their way through the book the “impossible” nature of her work starts becoming more familiar, poem after poem after poem.

Furthermore, unlike so many other young contemporary American poets Becker is unafraid to use that one linguistic device that generations of poets previous to her were weaned on: rhyme. A section from “Young Adult” plays off the inherent assonance in the words “gov” and “love”—“In an email to floor@bart.gov / The floor falls in love.” And as seen by some of the above excerpts from the collection—“I want to make a pact / a pact with me…It’s raining in the body”; “If you’re lonely / You’re expressing your choice…Your dark choice / To turn the lights off / Get in bed / With the dogs / In the bed”—Becker’s use of rhyme is not an accidental or happenstance occurrence. Its inclusion in a substantial portion of Where We Think It Should Go typifies how Becker manipulates language. The words she chooses to rhyme are rarely obvious and never obnoxious, and, like the subject matter of her work, the musicality of Becker’s poetry is—although omnipresent—nevertheless still understated.

“We want to see the way / we think we’ll see, / the way the thing we see erases” Becker writes in “Moat,” and to understand it is to understand the connections Becker makes in her work between the cognitive and the intuitive, the complex and the simple. Some of the poems in Where We Think It Should Go do not welcome readers with open arms so much as tolerate them and yet the collection as a whole does an outstanding job of combining the tentative nature of knowing and unknowing, sensing and guessing, with the desires one has regarding what could have been and might still be. Becker does not ask questions of her audience so much as push them to come up with questions of their own, ones about the mind and the body, youth and aging, that aren’t readily answerable and perhaps never will be. In Where We Think It Should Go it is the desire to understand or identify with “a thing” that is oftentimes just as important as the actual knowing of it, and in the best possible way Becker’s book is a product of its age. With so much information available on so many different topics, it is nearly impossible to simply believe in something—whether that be the existence of God or the supposedly reciprocal relationship between mind and body—the way you were able to as little as thirty years ago. You can, however, believe in the way you believe in something, in the sensation of believing, and in poem after poem Claire Becker’s reinforces this point in Where We Think It Should Go.

____
Jeff Alessandrelli lives in Lincoln, NE, where he co-curates the latest incarnation of The Clean Part Reading Series. Recent work by him appears in Quarterly West, Laurel Review, CutBank and Eleven Eleven, among other journals.