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Two From Tupelo Press

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Victory and Her Opposites: A Guide

Amy England
Tupelo Press, 2007

O Woolly City

Priscilla Sneff
Tupelo Press, 2006

“What is the past to me?” is a question that poets and readers of poetry have been asking for a long time. Two new books from Tupelo Press continue this tradition. O Woolly City by Priscilla Sneff and Victory and Her Opposites: A Guide by Amy England share a concern with the past and its relevance to us today, though only one of them seems to know what to do with this consciousness to make it interesting and vital.

In one sense Amy England would have done Rilke proud. Her Victory and Her Opposites: A Guide tells the story of how the poet changes her life after seeing her very own archaic bust of Apollo—in this case, The Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre. In a mixture of prose, poetry, drama, illustrations, and figures, England chronicles her obsession with learning all she can about the Victory’s discovery in the nineteenth century, its origins, the mysterious cult it represents—and about which we know less than we’d like today—an obsession which leads her to do everything short of flying to Samothrace itself and getting her own fingers dirty. Or has she visited there after all? Consider the opening stanzas of the prose poem, “The Island in History”:

Traveling a sea with many islands, we were anxious to visit this island, which had the remnants of a religion. For the remnants were particularly sparse and indecipherable.

From Imbros, Samothrace was blue; a flag of cloud had attached itself to the Mountain of the Moon as if to a volcano. As we circled to approach the one harbor, the mist took us in, a light rain.

Yet later in the same poem, she writes, “You will understand that this island is not Samothrace, but is made of pieces of true information about that island set in a matrix of information of other natures.” Is she saying that no one can comprehend the true Samothrace, not even archaeologists like her who study its soils and ruins, or is she admitting that her trip to the island is a flight of fancy?

We don’t realize it’s the latter until near the end of the book, when the long poem “Erosion Experiment” reveals her methods: “Track down the archaeologist” in the library; “Ask the computer;” “Find the Bollingen series on the excavations, the first seven volumes;” stay “out late drinking beer;” “write the poem you’re married to;” etc. It’s clear that England intends this as a surprise, an “ah-ha” moment of realization that earlier poems like “This Island in History” or “Religion” or “In the Field” take place not on Samothrace, as they seem to imply with their titles and their mimicry of field journals or diary entries, but in the imagination, in the mind. This reality isn’t satisfactory for her or us (“I lay the books in a great pile in the corner of the living room and hardly ever look at them. I want the finding of the information to be more difficult”), nor does it comes as a surprise. Whether she’s in Greece, in America, or on the moon, the reader quickly and easily grasps England’s intention, which is something akin to Seamus Heaney’s in “Digging.” In that famous poem, Heaney argues that a writer can dig into memory with a pen like a manual labor digs into the ground with a shovel. Likewise, England’s aim is to show us that, like an archaeologist with a chisel at a field site, a writer excavates and recreates (although imperfectly, incompletely) the past with a pen. As she admits, she is “trying to write not the poem, but the ground the poem comes from.”

  This is a nice though not particularly original idea. But did she have to draw it out over 104 pages? There are some very impressive lines in Victory and Her Opposites, but one must sift through layer after layer of unremarkable dirt and rock to find these gems. Parts of “The Largest Round Building of Classical Antiquity” manage to rise above its conceit with a tone that oscillates between indignation and resignation: “Who will descend to investigate? I’m not some bowl of wine to be poured away.It’s time now to go down.” Here England uses archaeology as metaphor to probe the psyche; too bad she ruins this effect by illustrating her point on the next page with a concrete poem that arranges large-type words like “rotunda” and “libation” and “pit” one on top of the other to create a kind of pentimento, to make of the text an archaeological site, a field.

One might expect to see this kind of bald shenanigan in a high school literary magazine; what on earth is it doing in a book published by Tupelo Press? Someone really should have excavated this and other bits of rubbish (including all those poems in which she elides words and phrases to create a Sappho-like fragmentation) right out of there.

And why didn’t they? Perhaps it’s the very nature of England’s project. Consider another passage from “Erosion Experiment”:

What is the philosophy of archaeology? Archaeology is a progress toward recording everything, no matter what your idea of its significance, an approach toward a complete accounting.

What may be true for archaeology isn’t necessarily true for poetry, even if they make pretty analogues. Poetry can never be about “recording everything,” can never be about a “complete accounting;” anything that attempts something so expansive cannot be called poetry. Poetry doesn’t expand our understanding by being expansive; it does so by narrowing, by limiting. Line breaks, word choice, sound effects—these are just some of the countless, difficult choices a poet must make at every twist and turn. England acknowledges this in the endnotes section to “Erosion Experiment” where she allows, “we cannot include everything, and the editing of reality, just as much as wholesale invention, turns material into a fiction, a work of art.” But “fiction” and “work of art” are not synonyms; “editing” may divert something from the path of fact but this diversion won’t necessarily transform it into art. And isn’t it absurd of her to assert that “We cannot include everything” in an endnote, something tacked on? So while England seems to understand her project is a fool’s errand, she cannot prevent herself from going on it, from experimenting with all the different ways to typographically present how little we know. It may have been intellectually stimulating for her to think of poetry as ruin, but it will be tedious for most readers to sift through “such paltry fragments,” to indulge her endless analogy for the ages that in a few short years will probably be forgotten. Not even England is hopeful of her work’s chances of survival. As she admits in “In the Field,” “I also detected traces of lettering on block of marble, but am not optimistic about recovering their message.”

Whereas England discovers the limits of human knowledge in the metaphor of archaeology, in O Woolly City Priscilla Sneff invents her own urban mythology from materials new and old to transform longing and loss into art, elevating them “from opaque to Opaque.” This line comes from the title poem, which reveals Sneff to be a poet of considerable talent. Consider “O Wooly City” in its entirety:

O Woolly City, each thing dings dully as an acorn
And nothing that’s glittery-clad, no sting, is found: swan-necked
Flasks (for don’t we all crave beauty and contamination)
Aren’t, and faetted gold’s drammed with the gorgeous salts underground
Where love’s brookline dagger shivers. Drat love’s daggery thirst.
And drat this woolliness: I promise you that there’ll be facts
But many other things are, City, necessary first
And a person’s in my pent house. A person or a spook
Who flits from opaque to Opaque. Away! And segue
In ultima; say our knees hurt and our elbows and backs;
Say it’s growth phrasing its formal demands; say our bodies
As they each stand now, are the volumes of how, in the past,
They gave one graceful reply after the next…. Lover’s love,
Till the last word unproofed is, say, pretext: a romance of
Manner. Say, Man or Ghost, more exactly: how difficult it is
To learn to speak our language fluently and correctly!

The last two lines may resonate with some readers who undoubtedly will leave this poem asking, say what? Perhaps this is an appropriate response: after all, one sense of woolly is lacking detail or clarity. Another sense of the word is of the roughness or lawlessness of the frontier, of the breakdown of mores and values that typically occur (as in Shakespeare) the farther one ventures from the metropolis. But here the city is woolly, and so one fears for its citizens who suffer from contradictions, who “crave beauty and contamination” at the same time. In this atmosphere, who can say if one is a “person or a spook,” “Man or Ghost”? In such an aura of indeterminacy (as circumscribed in Marjorie Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminacy), you can only make promises you can’t keep, resort to conjecture (“say our knees hurt” or “say it’s growth”), or invent pretexts.

In other words, this cruel, modern world has put Sneff in much the same predicament as England, though perhaps it has dealt Sneff more blows (many of her poems involve cancer, chemotherapy, and the death of a lover). But at least Sneff makes doubt and pain sing! The first two lines of “O Woolly City,” with their intense internal rhyme (“thing,” “dings,” “nothing,” “sting”) and alliteration, are reminiscent of the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins or, more recently, Cate Marvin. This sonic dexterity pervades the book, though frequently Sneff’s ear and her playfulness lead her to commit egregious puns. We see this above in “pent house” and when she echoes the “a” sound in flasks with the goofily demotic drat (not once but twice) or when in “So Long, Abyssinia” she writes “Stone that does not wander much; dint: ah gold; sing: ‘God, you got / No business in Abyssinia, Rimbaud-dee-oh-doh; don’t / Go….’” Or again when in “Archaeology” she writes, “The Gold beaker toasts you when you set toecap in / the tell: Here’s lookin’ at you, Doctor Indiana Jones, it says.” Moments like this are downright embarrassing.  

Despite the cringe-inducing puns in the above passages, notice that elements from the past make their appearances in Sneff’s poetry, though not as Conspicuously Important Metaphors to be plumbed and probed and paraded around the room, but rather as ordinary aspects of everyday life. What the past means to Sneff becomes clearer in the poem “Thessaloniki”:

Merely crossing the Green from the new city to the old
Or passing under the rampart between
The old city and the arid, stony slopes
Of ancient Salonika—merely this brinks new currency,
Change of heart.

The old and the new are not just juxtaposed here; they are traversed, and this traversal isn’t a big deal—it’s a “mere” thing that produces unexpected revelations, a new way of seeing and knowing, of living the past in the present without being paralyzed by it. These lines evoke Eliot’s argument in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: a poet is “not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” This “change of heart” is what Sneff means when she writes in the book’s first sentence, “Here begins a new science”: a new wisdom that sets about “advancing the book-mark / Into the coming, imperfectly-remembering age.” Isn’t this the wisdom Randall Jarrell, in his essay “The Obscurity of the Poet,” hopes will show readers that the main reason for the difficulty of modern poetry is their own reluctance to read it?

So, even with her proclivity for the pun, even with her tendency to weigh down lines with an overabundance of jargon (“crinoids,” “symplegades,” “mufti,” “mummia,” “atheling”), even though her sestinas and lullabies feel more like exercises than real poems, Sneff’s energy keeps things interesting. In the end she succeeds in constructing a mythology out of the city that is both full of despair and hope. We the readers are like the figure in her poem “Raptor”: sweeping over her landscape we are struck by her “brazen horizon.” It is a horizon populated with—rather than haunted by—shades from the past.

When Martin Heidegger warns in “What Are Poets For?” that “the more obscure the traces become the less can a single mortal, reaching into the abyss, attend there to intimations and signs,” it’s clear he thinks poets exist to make sense of the past. Amy England and Priscilla Sneff are mere mortals who have dared to reach into that abyss, but it is the signs Sneff finds there, it is her intimations, which deserve our attention.

Chad Reynolds has published poetry in such journals and websites as Washington Square, Meridian, Verse Daily, Swink, RealPoetik, Redivider, and most recently Diagram and Sawbuck. His chapbook, Victor in the New World, is forthcoming from Rope-a-Dope Press in December 2007.