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Artifice and Discipline

By (March 1, 2010) No Comment

Modern Life
Matthea Harvey
Graywolf Press, 2009

The Heaven-Sent Leaf
Katy Lederer
BOA Editions, 2009

Human Dark with Sugar
Brenda Shaughnessy
Copper Canyon Press, 2009

Robyn Schiff
University of Iowa Press, 2009

Karen Volkman
BOA Editions 2009

In his 1998 essay “The Shredding of Public Privacy,” philosopher Thomas Nagel writes that “The distinction between what an individual exposes to public view and what he conceals or exposes only to intimates is essential to permit creatures as complex as ourselves to interact without constant social breakdown.” Nagel says he, but the past couple of years have seen a wave of second and third books by female poets who rely upon the tension between concealment and exposure to drive their explorations of the self. The five poets above all, in different fashions and to varying degrees, explore the inevitable push and pull between the public and the private. Each of their most recent books reminds the reader that what an individual chooses to reveal to their friends, strangers, co-workers, lovers, gods—what they choose to reveal to their readers and what they refuse to reveal at all—serves to determine who they are. Considered as a group, these five books suggest that one of the many lenses through which a book of poems can be read—or traits by which almost any poetry collection can be characterized—is the way in which it handles the interplay between the interior and the exterior, the self and the other, introspection and the world of action.

“I’ll be a whole new person,” writes Brenda Shaughnessy in Human Dark with Sugar: “I’ll make her myself.” So, too, each individual controls, or attempts to control, who they are within a given context by adjusting what they present of themselves, a performance that varies in accordance with the audience, be it personal, political, professional, or scholarly. Such performances are not always successful: “The whole machinery of self-production is cumbersome…and sometimes breaks down,” writes Erving Goffman in his pioneering 1956 study of sociological dramaturgy, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. But in poetry—which always insists that the way it presents itself is the way it is—a reader can expect to find a highly distilled, well-oiled version of this performance: a deeply self-conscious, stylized simulation of the self by way of the interplay of secrecy and candor.

Nagel continues: “Each of our inner lives is such a jungle of thoughts, feelings, fantasies and impulses that civilization would be impossible if we expressed them all.” So, too, would poetry be impossible if a writer aimed for nothing other than the unchecked expression of their entire consciousness. Fortunately, none of these authors attempts that. But the inner lives, mental events, and fantasies described by the speakers in these books—that of a “brainworker” at a hedge fund, for instance, in Katy Lederer’s case, or of a citizen trying to parse an onslaught of dread-slanted news in Matthea Harvey’s— permit the reader to follow the movements of minds that are provocative, memorable, humorous, and stunning. Each of these poets skillfully discloses and withholds, exploring new selves on the page.

Piled together, these five collections constitute an embarrassment of riches; it’s tough to know where to begin. Proceeding alphabetically would mean starting with Harvey’s Modern Life, her third collection. It’s fitting that the alphabet should dictate that Harvey go first, since alphabetical dictates figure so prominently into two of this book’s most thrilling series, and since, as Harvey herself might to tell you, the pursuit of the seemingly arbitrary can sometimes lay bare an unexpected design.

Early in the book, Harvey offers eleven poems, each titled “The Future of Terror,” each of them as acrobatic in their syntax and ambitious in their vocabulary as this passage from “The Future of Terror/2”:

Happy-go-lucky is just a decision to proceed
with an assumption of happiness and luck.
The Observation Station gained a toehold,
appeared on houseflags, had us hooked.
Don’t get the impression we weren’t
all dialing information every hour: we were,
if only intracranially. In an inversion of
the usual itinerary, we felt a jolt of bullets
before we even entered the jungle….

How, a reader may wonder, is Harvey choosing her words? What drives her decision-making? And of all the poets discussed in this review, she happens to be the most willing to explain.

In 2006, American Poet published Harvey’s essay “Don Dada on the Down Low Getting Godly in His Game: Between and Beyond Play and Prayer in the Abecedarius.” Like most Americans during the Bush administration, Harvey had been hearing the phrase “the future of terror” over and over in the media, and she wanted to give the expression more solidity and meaning, to come to terms with it in her own terms. Thus, she writes:

One day, I ended up turning to my big fat red Webster’s dictionary and looking up the definitions of ‘future’ and ‘terror.’ There’s a lot of heft between those two words in the dictionary, and I decided to create a word list by writing down every word between ‘future’ and ‘terror’ that fell in the same place on the page as ‘future.’ It was just an experiment….

As she was writing, she realized she had “simultaneously created a mirror image, a ‘Terror of the Future,’” which ended up constituting another of the series in Modern Life. For these poems, Harvey “went backward through the dictionary, my finger this time tracing where ‘terror’ would fall on each successive page until I hit future and stopped.” By placing this private, idiosyncratic spin on political rhetoric—by creating her own complex system to respond to what has become a mindless public catchphrase, Harvey manipulates the tension between the interior and the exterior, and how this tension can provide a version of a self who knows “What to Live. What to Do.”

Harvey doesn’t really have a name for this latter technique, though she tosses out “backward abecedarian,” “decebarian,” and “zeyexewrius” as possibilities. Whatever one chooses to call them, it’s hard not to be glad that she wrote them, and gladder still that she has pulled aside the curtain to show the audience the gears and pulleys. In Modern Life, Harvey has devised an impressive kind of political poetry that reaches beyond mere partisanship or advocacy. These poems don’t try to preach to the choir or summon anyone to the barricades but rather call people to interrogate the blurry line between private and public citizenship—that space where one thing shades into its opposite, where “the centaur spells out Wall on his napkin, and sketches next to it a girl in sequins getting sawed in half.”

Like the sawing of a girl in half, The Heaven-Sent Leaf by Katy Lederer audaciously sets out to perform a seemingly doomed feat. In a 1962 BBC-TV interview, Robert Graves remarked, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” The promotional copy for Lederer’s second book of poems, quotes Graves, thereby preparing the reader to watch Lederer prove him wrong. Practically every poem in this ambitious and uncompromising book is about money—dirty, shady, dubiously-gotten, impolite-to-talk-about, anti-poetic money. The book’s title, taken from Goethe’s Faust Part II, is a metaphor for the thing itself: brainchild of Mephistopheles, the “heaven-sent leaf” is nothing other than paper money.

If one of Harvey’s aims is to concretize an abstract phrase, an absent-yet-present threat, then one of Lederer’s is to make concrete an abstract system, the monetary system which, as we have come to discover, is often all too abstract. What Lederer seeks to accomplish is to give money a human face, presumably by adapting parts of her own autobiography (she has written a critically acclaimed memoir about her family’s professional gambling) and years of experience working at D. E. Shaw, one of the biggest hedge funds in country, described by Fortune as “the most intriguing and mysterious force on Wall Street.” According to her poem “Brainworker,” the upwardly mobile young professional at this fund might find it necessary:

To learn to be an animal. To learn to be that primal.
To know who will slip you the fresh dish of milk.
To long for your manager’s written approval.
So soon am I up for my year-end review?
The moon above settles into its shadow.
I am howling at you.

If the tone of the poems in The Heaven-Sent Leaf is often deliberately tough to get a read on, even disassociated, when you can in fact make it out, it is frequently just plain sad. In “The Parable of Times Square,” an uncommonly beautiful poem and one of the collection’s best, she writes:

I hate to be alone. The solitude of Brooklyn.
But outside, now framed by the window, a couple.
They stare at one another over pork chops and beer.
I call you on the telephone. I call to hear
Your muffled voice. “People aren’t the be-all and end-all of one
another’s lives,” you say.

Throughout the collection, Lederer gives voice to the ambivalence, anxiety, and erotics of acquisition, status, and greed. It’s said that Americans would rather talk about almost anything than how much money they make. Lederer’s not telling either, but the intimate glimpses she gives, however obliquely, of the private life and longings of an elite professional manage to feel both timeless—in part due to her simplicity of syntax, vatic pronunciations, and liberal use of lines that start out “O/h”—and utterly of our time. It is lovely to see her inflecting the corporate sphere with lyric sensitivity, and alchemically altering that world’s shopworn dross into poetry, or trying to, even as the impersonal machine of finance threatens to render her speakers drones.

While Lederer’s speakers sometimes seem sphinx-like in their impenetrability, the speakers in Brenda Shaughnessy’s second collection, Human Dark with Sugar, let the reader know exactly how they feel. Shaughnessy has an almost Sextonian policy of putting everything private up for grabs—of keeping no secrets. “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” she wrote in her first book, goofily borrowing from Alcoholics Anonymous, and in this book, she continues her candor, writing almost in defiance of decorum.

In the book’s opening poem, “I’m Over the Moon,” she demands:

How long do I try to get water from a stone?
It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band.

Better off alone. I’m going to write hard
and fast into you moon, face-fucking.

Something you wouldn’t understand.
You with no swampy sexual

promise but what we glue onto you.
That’s not real. You have no begging

cunt. No panties ripped off and the crotch
sucked. No lacerating spasms

sending electrical sparks through the toes.
Stars have those.

Here and throughout this collection, Shaughnessy makes public those ecstasies and sufferings that are usually kept private. If she is sometimes raw, even vulgar, so too does she uphold the lyric tradition of making relatable and universal emotions that are often thought, at least by those feeling them, to be unique. The impact is not unlike that of music, as described in her poem “Replaceable until You’re Not”

Music’s ruthless that way: ‘Here are the words

and here’s the tune to how you feel. Doesn’t matter
you didn’t originate your own feelings.

We know you! Enjoy!” I may be a chump,
but at some point aren’t I irreplaceable?

Shaughnessy spares no one, not even herself, such sassy, frank criticism. In “A Poet’s Poem,” she admits, “Finally I reached up and broke a big, clear spike / off the roof with my bare hand // And used it to write a word in the snow. / I wrote the word snow. // I can’t stand myself.” Of course, even as she lets the reader in, publicly owning her self-disgust, our experience of that feeling is mitigated by its aesthetic transformation—constrained by the limits of language, it’s broken into tidy lines and stanzas for the reader’s consumption. But the bitterness here is real and refreshing, and the poet’s unhappiness with her expressive limitations effectively captures one’s inevitable failure to externalize his or her inner complexity.

Of all these poets, Robyn Schiff in her second collection, Revolver, seems most concerned with controls and limitations, imposing them rigorously on herself, thereby lending her exquisitely discursive a perfect balance between improvisation and refinement.

In the beautiful long poem that concludes the collection, “Project Paperclip,” Schiff indulges in the same explanatory impulse that Harvey does with her abecedarian poems, letting the reader know within the poem itself that:

…I began containing

Starry Sky Beetles in boxes of 42 syllables each

To honor my mother’s birth in 1942,

Three days after the B-29 Superfortress


for the first

time (Japan was built of sticks),

but I say goodbye in 42 for each call Tom Ford fielded on

September 11, 2001 for the Yves Saint

Laurent purple peasant blouse.

In Revolver as well as in her debut, Worth, Schiff is drawn to investigate fashion icons for the way they embody a certain materialism, an excess held in check by artifice and discipline, but no less so for the light they shed upon consumer culture. Throughout, Schiff teeters expertly on the edge between exaggeration and proportion, as in “Dear Ralph Lauren,” in which she imagines of the Polo brand’s infamous logo: “I feared the forward waving his mallet / like a tomahawk / until you told me the / logo is based on me // merely hailing a cab.” Schiff appears to give her private research interests free rein before she reins them in, like Marianne Moore before her, with her meticulous syllabics, and puts them on display on the page like artisan-crafted artifacts. This seems appropriate, considering that the book takes on the cavalcade of objects presented at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.

The flow of the poems—and the wealth of facts that comprise the poems—are clearly driven by Schiff’s private consciousness at work on connections and chains that others might not catch, but the results are always exhilarating, even (or especially) when they leave you spinning. The intrepid reader could, if they got the notion, do an online search, for example, about the life and times of Elsa Schiaparelli, the influential Italian fashion designer who provides the jumping off place for Schiff’s poem “The House of Schiaparelli,” and in doing so could discover that Daisy Fellowes, part of the inspiration for the subsequent poem in the collection, “Singer Sewing Machine,” was not just “heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune” as the poem states, but also an editor of the French Harper’s Bazaar and one of Schiaparelli’s best clients. But one would not have to do so to appreciate the poems themselves, which are so consistently self-contained and adrenalized, and to appreciate how deftly Schiff shapes the poems’ potentially boundless content into artful and satisfying wholes.

Part of the delight Revolver provides originates in its author’s desire to engage with the things of this world, its facts and its flaws, and to present to the reader her attempts to make sense of them. The delight of the 50 sonnets in Karen Volkman’s third collection, Nomina, on the other hand, proceeds from their author’s determination to veer as far as possible from common sense—i.e, an understanding we might share. If Schiff and the others are captivating in their varying investigations of the social, then at the opposite end of the spectrum—the foil—is Volkman, who throws the other poets into fascinating relief.

Nomina is nothing if not esoteric. For one thing, Volkman, clearly influenced by Stephan Mallarmé, probably knows more French and Latinate words than her readers, most of whom will be unacquainted with such terms as “ecume,” “alcool,” “orgueil” and “naufrage.” The book, if it is to be enjoyed, is not going to win people over by virtue of its content or its arguments; if Volkman is concerned at all with making stable meaning, she seems to be making it almost entirely for herself. Rather, that the poet retreats from the common into elaborate cells of her own making—with all the gains and losses this implies—is the book’s modus operandi and ultimate meaning.

If a reader is able to approach these sonnets not as units of sense one needs to understand but rather as a song in which the same chords keep getting played, or even a painting in which the same images—“signs” or “ciphers” as Volkman might have it—keep appearing, then the experience will be beguiling. The word “Blue” for example, would be the repeated color or note in this one:

The blue beneficence we call and spell
and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well
of constant waters, deepening a thee,

a thou and who, touching every what—
and in the or, a shudder in the cut—
and that you are, blue mirror; only stare

bluest blankness, whether in the where,
sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught
drowns and booms and vowels. I will not.

You can try to impose a clear through-line on this poem if you want—she appears to be meditating upon divinity—but why force it? Better to give yourself over to the wash of Volkman’s sonic obsessions, to experience their “blue beauty” as it “drowns and booms and vowels” into rare, compelling soundscapes.

Goffman writes that self-presentation arises “out of intimate interaction with the contingencies of staging performances.” One of those contingencies, of course, is the other actors with whom a performer inevitably interacts. For Harvey, Lederer, Shaughnessy, Schiff and Volkman—perhaps for any poet, really—the most critical other actor is likely the reader. It is a pleasure, here, to be so cast.


Kathleen Rooney is an editor of Rose Metal Press and the author, most recently, of the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint, 2010).