July 2013 Issue
Omnidawn Press 2013
It’s hard to make much headway with Sarah Gridley’s third book of poetry, Loom, unless you’ve first read Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” If you haven’t (I certainly hadn’t), here it is. It won’t take you five minutes. I’ll wait.
Ah, you’re back. That was something, hmm? The cursed Lady observes the world through a mirror while weaving a tapestry of what she sees. Then, she looks up and sneaks a peek at über-bro Sir Lancelot, thereby causing the curse to take effect, killing her – rather languorously and romantically, of course. The poem raises far more questions than it answers (although perhaps all good poems do). Who put the curse on the Lady? And why? We have no idea. The curse is as much a MacGuffin as any number of black statuettes or fabled treasures. It’s just there to set the poem in motion.
And there’s Lancelot riding by, sealing the Lady’s fate. Isn’t it his whole job to rescue ladies from danger, including the danger posed by lyrically convenient curses? He could at least inquire, perhaps of those barley-reaping peasants, whether there might be any good rescuing opportunities in the vicinity. But no. All he can do is “muse a little space,” after the Lady’s body is carried down to Camelot on the current, concluding, “[s]he has a lovely face.” Really, Lancelot? The Women’s Studies folks are going to have a field day with that one.
In spite of the fundamental ridiculousness of the set-up (and the provocation to go stomp on Lancelot’s instep), we do get some wonderful lines. The Lady’s remark, “I am half-sick of shadows” is both rueful and archly sardonic, a cold shiver in the otherwise stately pacing of the poem. Then there’s the deliciously gothy “Till her blood was frozen slowly,” and the almost physical finality of “The mirror crack’d from side to side.” These lines continue to echo down the decades, where, along with the poem’s central conceit of a reflected world, they now provide the animating force for Loom.
The book is in three sections. The first and the third, both of which are titled with lines from Tennyson’s poem, consist of spare, lean, lyrics that reflect and refract the concept of mirroring and doubling – the world as it is, and the world as it is perceived. The first section, Shadows of the World Appear, starts the process by presenting us with the doubling of meaning inherent within words themselves:
One surrealist described it as
a light task:
to slice open pages
of a newly-
It is this section that engages most clearly with Tennyson’s poem, making frequent references, both direct and oblique, to its content. The funeral with “black plumes” that passes under the Lady’s window makes an appearance, as does the Lady herself, of whom Gridley writes, “Still the Lady could come to her senses. Cool as a nude or pressed flower.”
And so another type of mirroring is presented. Not only can words have double meanings– a light task, a shaft of light – but we use them to describe the world in terms of other things, to create metaphors. A woman represented as inert and “sensible” as a pressed flower. Gridley writes:
Every surface remarks a hidden world, “a history of the Lady we cannot see:”
not the right side of weaving
where the mirror’s looks
are patterned out. Not the marketable output
of industry, but the wrong side
Here is a world
the Lady never said:
. . .
Long bolts of cloth. Huge hoistings of self to stillness.
and there were long days
of wonderful listening. And infinite backdrops
beneath her hands.
“The Lady of Shalott” is itself only a metaphor here. Tennyson’s poem functions as reference point, a lens of comparison by which to consider a larger question (or questions – Gridley is always doubling. In the first section, a barely-there pattern emerges, a single phrase that finds itself repeated in the third section: “Who is this and what is here.” Among all the mirrors and homophones and metaphors, this echoed question provides the book’s impetus, its raison d’etre. The world and one’s place in it are there to be discovered, but how? A mirror, of course, provides one avenue for identifying the self and the objects around it; a book may be another.
Shadows of the World Appear concludes, after having first posed the questions of “who is this and what is here,” softly but starkly, referencing the doubled ladies of “The Lady of Shalott” – i.e., the woman, and the eponymous ship in which she lays down to die:
Wet your finger
and speak to the weather—
lightstrips of wind pinned around corporeal clothes.
It is cold tasting light in the mouth.
It is how you resemble a vessel.
How you come up against every wave.
Loom’s third section, Half-Sick of Shadows, takes up the concerns of the first, again playing with doubled meanings (to foil a scent, to back a gem with foil, “the mirror is a foil”), and asking the questions, “Who is this? And what is here?” Now, however, Tennyson’s poem is not the only lens of comparison. Gridley includes references to Millais’ painting of Ophelia, for which Elizabeth Siddal modeled by lying in a bathtub for hours on end, as well as to the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron, a neighbor of Tennyson’s on the Isle of Wight, who photographed illustrations for his Idylls of the King. Famous for her celebrity portraits and constant experimentation with exposures, Cameron used her lens as an elaborative and illustrative tool, like a painter’s brush, rather than as a purely documentary machine.
Here the illuminant illumines the subject:
a small magnesium explosion
where a flashlamp
startles the veil
As Gridley suggests, both painting and photography are means by which to reproduce or mirror an image, to recreate a reality. But both may also be used to simply create something that seems like a reality. Millais’ painting is not of Ophelia herself, but of a model in a bathtub (who proceeded to catch a very real and not very romantic cold). And what Cameron documented, with all her exposures and coatings and richly garbed models, were staged scenes. Like the mirror that the Lady of Shalott looks into for the subjects of her endless tapestry, the arts comprise a means by which to consider the questions of “who is this and what is here,” but they do not necessarily provide straight answers. They do not, themselves, provide reality.
Writing, too, Gridley urges us to consider, provides a means for doubling and reflecting the world around us, but not necessarily the means to ensure perfect fidelity in the result.
That I had an early grasp of this—
in the written word
required a solemn respect for ratio
—did never mean I would
And yet, art’s imperfect recreations of the world are, in fact, a part of our reality. Art surrounds us – in music, movies, poems, and paintings. Our reality is reality as filtered through the mind. Art takes it a step further – the artist mediates reality, and then the viewer, listener, or reader of the art mediates the mediation. And Millais’ painting, Cameron’s photographs, and Loom itself comprise art about art, a further iterative reflection, distortion, and amplification of the world as it is.
She grew up with a form of technology
called a record player. Each voice came about
Where the needles set devotion
on a scratch, the Lady listened
to the skipping sound:
From the bank
and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror Tirra
by the river
Sang sir Lancelot
Loom’s first and third sections, then, are in the nature of an essay, “mus[ing] a little space” on the nature of art’s reiterative answers to the questions of “Who is this and what is here?” And in the midst of it all, literally as well as figuratively, sits the book’s second section, The Heart is Dependent on the Outside World. Rather than a single, spare poem, this section is comprised of multiple prose poems, a solid block of matter set between the book’s cool, lean opening and closing. And unlike those bookending sections, Loom’s long second act takes its title not from Tennyson’s poem, but from a highly metaphorical Taoist treatise on meditation, The Secret of the Golden Flower.
Just as a Taoist treatise would seem, at first glance, to have little to do with a pre-Raphaelite poem, the relation of Loom’s second section to its opening and closing sections is not immediately apparent. Indeed, many of the individual poems in The Heart is Dependent on the Outside World have little obvious connection to one another. The Lady of Shalott flits in and out, but so do Greek, Japanese, and Anglo-Saxon myths, natural histories, etymologies, geometry, and the poetry of W.H. Auden.
But this disconnect is only apparent – Gridley remains restlessly and relentlessly allusive. Consider the Auden-quoting poem, “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”:
Ill at ease interposes a preposition into malaise as if to point to an actual place in the mind of translation. Lu Chi in his Fu of 303 A.D. put the waiting this way: We knock upon silence for an answering music. Everything starts out kicking. Everything dies inside some kind of song. Different musics respond to knocked-on silences: boats in loose percussion with docks—wings that whistle without the form of melody. What if knocking itself could answer knocking. Even the gods had need of a physician. We called the peony after him.
My first reaction to this poem, as with many other poems in The Heart is Dependent on the Outside World, was to take what consolation I could from its small sensualities— “boats in loose percussion with docks”—while maintaining a schoolchild’s respectful dismay before its web of references that I lacked the means to parse. I’d never read Lu Chi (never heard of him, actually), and was only dimly aware that the phrase “poetry makes nothing happen” was from—well, some British poet, yes? And as for the gods’ physician, I could think only of Apollo, but surely peonies aren’t named after him?
Well, in fact they are. “Peony” comes from Paion, another name for Apollo. And Gridley tells you what you need to know, at least for the poem’s purposes, of Lu Chi (except perhaps, that the “we” of his phrase is “we poets.”). And “poetry makes nothing happen,” for all my inability to place it correctly, is far from obscure. It comes from Auden’s elegy for W.B. Yeats. He writes:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Poetry survives in the mind, in the mouth, and Auden’s remembrance of Yeats survives in Gridley’s poem. This is more art about art, which is to say, about the way we see the world – through our own experience, through the lens of others’ experience, through language. If Gridley’s poems seem disconnected internally and from one another, it is only because they are fraught with connections, so many that a reader cannot grasp them all, at least not at once. Allusion is part of the illusion that art creates, the illusion of reality. Here, allusion both reinforces and undermines the illusion – if reality resists immediate understanding, so do these poems. But just as The Secret of the Golden Flower instructs adepts in hidden realities, Gridley’s poems address the secret life of words, of thought. The surface only seems impenetrable.
In the best tradition of the esoteric, even the organization and structure of The Heart is Dependent on the Outside World underscores Gridley’s point – the section consists of 26 poems, arranged in alphabetical order. Language is a means for making sense of everything; it survives in the valley of its own making. Language creates order in the disorder, in the seeming chaos, even if it is only the order that every person daily creates by filtering reality through a human mind. A means to order, then, though not a sure one, as Gridley explores in “Grimoire”:
One said to drink from the mirror, while another took bowls and bowls of blood. One called for moss on top of blood. One required no words at all. One turned a black stone green with just one word. One made all the horses bolt. One crushed a shade plant for the end of sorrow. One derived a forest from pendant ghosts. One was a spell for no more spells. For cutting them down, and letting them go.
The spells described by these poems trumpet and deny the power of language at once. One spell uses a single word to change the world. One uses no words. And finally, there is the spell “for no more spells.” For realizing the hollowness of language, its essential lack in the face of the world’s resolute, unending there. The poet can be, as Jack Spicer commanded, “like God,” but a poet’s saying “let there be light” will no more intensify or diminish the actual light than will staring at the sun. Except, of course, in the mind of the one who stares.
On a first read, Loom is puzzling. Its first and third sections are light, airy, and seemingly insubstantial. Its second section is dense, paratactic, and seemingly obtuse. The book’s warp and the weft don’t seem to belong in the same tapestry, and some of the repeating images – of mirrors, for example – feel as though they were tossed in to create the semblance of connectedness, rather than being demanded by actual connectedness. But Loom does not reward a casual reading and is not interested in casual readers. If you’ve had your brain softened up by new surrealists and post-post-post-New York School derivations, you’ll be excused for an initial sense of bafflement – though perhaps not for failing to give the book a second, third, and even fourth read. There’s enough here on the first go – enough shafts of light oddly refracting along the surface – to suggest the greater depths below, to compel further investigation.
For the persistent, interested reader, Loom provides what all “difficult” poetry ought to provide – a complex engagement with language, and a sense of purpose, a moral drive. Loom asks us to think about how and why we think, about how the world is and is not accurately represented in our responses to the world. These are not facile questions. Gridley’s poems twist and refract before the reader’s gaze, but they are not coy. The struggle they enact is every thinking person’s common struggle to understand the world. That’s a struggle worth your time.
Maureen Thorson is the poetry editor of Open Letters Monthly. Her first book of poems, Applies to Oranges, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2011.