A DELUGE OF DEFINITIONS

fall
by AMY NEWMAN

[65pp, hdbk £14.50, Wesleyan University Press]


I was excited about this book before I even opened it - and that's not just about the pleasure of a hardback poetry book with a glossy dust jacket. This is a book with a Big Idea, one of the why-didn't-I-think-of-it-first variety, a book which plays with language and how we think with language.

The Big Idea is this: the word fall has 72 definitions (in The American Heritage Dictionary) and these are used to generate the book's three dozen poems, which fall (like the definitions) into three sections: intransitive, transitive and noun. Simple on the face of it - but when you look at the range of meanings fall has, you begin to see the scope that Newman's given herself for dense, rich and wide-ranging text.

As a noun, for instance, fall
can mean: 'The end of a cable, rope, or chain that is pulled by the power source in hoisting', 'Often capital F. Autumn', 'That which has fallen'. Each of these is a poem title. As a transitive verb: fall for / among / foul / in with / to …and each of these is a poem title. As an intransitive verb: 'To lose one's chastity. Used especially of a woman' (yes, another title) and 'To hang down: Eve's hair fell in ringlets.' And here's what the Big Idea is all about - that first Fall in the Garden of Eden, echoing across all the uses of fall throughout the book.

Right then. The first poem in 'intransitive' is 'To come to rest; strike bottom; land: The world first fell from the firmament', and here

...Into that temperate, unfocused place,
entwined as promise beneath the trees, we arrived,
the fallible human material.

to be followed in short order by Satan, in the poem 'To be conquered or seized' where Eve is (apple-like) 'ready to burst her skin at the crisp possibilities.'

The 'transitive' poems move forward to contemporary loss in the poet's family - though never lose sight of that first fall from Eden. '-fall among
. To come by chance into the company of' is where Newman writes herself into the poems. It opens:

At my birth, I broke the surface of the water;
then I heard the end of the garden and
felt the sadness of exile....

In the next stanza she writes 'I fell among the family. / And backward from the paradise'. And it is within the family that contemporary loss is experienced: '-fall on (or upon). To attack suddenly; ambush' is a poem which describes breasts, and then

Once, in this realm of precious flesh,
in the beautiful, tender, tenacious breast,
my mother found a little knot,

a dense coagulate against
the floral canopy of skin

Several poems in this section mourn the loss of a mother 'as clear as the world, and sinless'. The third section, 'noun' (which ends with Fall = autumn) is also elegiac, with the mother's burial in 'The act or an instance of falling; a dropping down; free descent':

...We could be startled again
by the gape in the grass, its punctuation in the day,
by the sound - the sound! like nothing else -

of that first clump of dirt, falling back to itself'

Garden, apples, leaves, blossom and seeds are the source of metaphors and images which recur again and again, binding the poems together. Sometimes they generate surprises, like that 'floral canopy of skin' quoted above. The same is true of vocabulary – if you come across 'cuneate' once, you'll meet it again, and 'cicatrice' and 'descrescendo'; 'swift' is used as a verb more than once. The problem with these unusual words recurring is they draw so much attention to themselves. Those 'crisp possibilities' quoted above, oh yes, there's an echo elsewhere in 'a crisp note in a dark sky'- it isn't just unusual words that repeat.

So now I'm into the caveats. The problem with recurrent images is that while they create consistency, they also create sameness. And the more I read the book, the less I'm able to distinguish one lot of blossom, one apple seed, one wound from another. The lovely lyrics are laid on so thickly that I end up gasping for air. Take this middle passage from 'Often capital F
. Autumn'

The day droops down, the sky will bend its neck at night,

its darkness is a scent to us and when the trees relent,
their limbs fall out: the languor of their curves is sweet,
and birds will rush to feed where they can rest,

between their parings and their song;
they swift on waves of air, on fallen waves, and bodies
mesh their lessenings like leaves, and intergrate a sense  [sic
]

of something downward, and we know it, in the way
we bury mothers, fathers, in the wound of land: a planting
of the husk: above, against blue scrim of sky, we hope

into a bloom, brisk of petal, pink as an apple flower, frilled
as the memory of loss, its scent so apple sweet...

There's no wonder I fell upon (sorry, this must be infectious) a poem near the beginning of the book which takes an altogether different form. 'To assume an expression of disappointment. His Face fell' uses the same materials, but much more adventurously. It opens:

God's disappointments.
To enumerate:
1) sand
2) the birds hovered less than would be tranquil
3) rain could be problematic
4) once companions are introduced, the notion of aloneness

and it's cleverly developed so that it reads simultaneously as a list and as a continuous text. My own disappointments are that there are not more poems like this one, and that so many of them drown in lashings of their own lovely logic.


     © Jane Routh 2004