Domestic Knowledge, Knowledge Domesticated

The Second Child, Deborah Garrison (Bloodaxe)
Yellow Studio, Stephen Romer (Carcanet)
Patricides, David Pollard (Waterloo Press)

Deborah Garrison's The Second Child is a typical Manhattan collection. A book that consists within a localizable domestic world where a poetry is expressed to an audience of the author's father, husband and children; and even where more broadly addressed to an outside world never beyond the protective enclave of Garrison's coterie of New York intelligentsia. The impetus or stimulus to the work is the birth of the author's son and the related changes and challenges of living and giving birth to a child in Manhattan and its surroundings post-9/11. The insularity of the collection is startling.

The first poem, 'On New Terms', published in
The New Yorker where she worked for fifteen years, establishes the typical emotional posture of the collection:

     I'd like to begin again. Not touch my
     own face, not tremble in the dark before
     an intruder who never arrives. Not
     apologise. Not scurry, not pace. Not
     refuse to keep notes of what meant the most.

There is a pleasing spareness to Garrison's writing. In 'Not Pleasant but True' we see her making the brave and noble attempt at a confession of her passing contemplation of suicide, but she never gives the event the significance or signification it requires, so resolutely stuck she seems within the furious racing of her own thoughts. She concludes the poem pathetically with these lines: 'Someone take from me / this crazed love, // such battering care / I lost my mind Š // I was going to leave you / without a mother!'

Most of the time we find Garrison admitting to a kind of stubborn interiority in poems like 'A Human Calculation'--where she goes through the hypothetical scenario of deciding who to let the terrorists take first--and in 'To the Man in a Loden Coat' where she forthrightly declares 'I'm self-absorbed'. There is something decidedly regressive and strange about the paranoid conspiracy theories she spins in these poems.

At her best, her meditative moments are memorable passing fancies, as in poems like 'Play Your Hand': 'Like sound packed / in a trumpet's bell, its glossy / exit retains that shape, printing // its curve in reverse on the ear.' There are also harrowing moments of strange and beautiful poetry. For example, 'Cascade', a hearkening back to first, precious moments of conjugal love, is a poem which contains some lovely metaphors:

     where we laughed because it was so odd
     we happened to be us (of all the gin joints...),
     stripping each other
     on Thanksgiving afternoon
     across the ocean from ourselves.

At the other end of the scale, there is much baby-talk and baby-logic. In 'The Necklace' the trivialities of a child's reaching for his mother's jewellery is given voice in the form of the 'tiny man's' having 'wah-wahed' (49). And in 'How Many' where she falls victim to the play of baby logic without ever considering what Erik Erikson or Piaget might have to say: 'How tall is this house? / How many stories, / how many can I stack / and how high?' These are oversimplified rather than the expression of an innate intelligence. In 'Either Way, No Way' the rhymes veer into Dr. Seuss territory:

     Not when you're scanning the crowd
     Alert and aware
     But when you're buying the ice cream
     Or chatting with the man
     Who sells the ice cream
     Who came here from Greece
     When he was only sixteen
     To make a new life

Again, we don't know here who needs the education: the child or the poet, such is the phlegmatic ingˇnue reality of these poems. In 'Birth Day Pun' Garrison, for once, questions her role as a mother--surprising for the author of
A Working Girl Can't Win, her first collection in which she chartered the challenges of a working woman.

But there are several exceptional and standouts to the collection that demonstrate a genuine metaphorical talent. These are 'A Joke' and 'A Poem About an Owl'--and in terms of rhythm, sound and originality, the kind of vaudeville reworking--'Goodbye, New York'. 'A Joke' is, ironically, the most serious and tightly controlled and thoroughgoing poem in the collection. There is a real irony and bite to this kind of mental exercise that is quite satisfying and fulfilling:
     I didn't laugh along.
     The joke, containing as it must
     a stab at language Š
I suckee,
     you suckee, we suckee! Š
     branded you a sophisticate
     beyond babyhood. There came
     a shudder at the teasing, near-
     sexual premise, not felt with girls.
     and the tears, pressing up
     at the punch line:
     Goodbye, good boy.

     What love, what sorrow,
     to give you the heave-ho:
     I'll have to wean you
     starting tomorrow.

Here there is a real depth and originality that take the poet out of herself.

In Stephen Romer's Yellow Studio there is ample evidence of patience craftsmanship, knowledge, vision and ambition. This is one of the best collections of the year and a near gem. The only thing perhaps that takes the poems down a level is the concessions Romer makes to an assumed popular audience and the occasional nature of some of the earlier poems where he seems in search of inspiration or a means of anchoring his verse. 'Recidivist' is a good example of the conflicting strains of his poetry. It begins:
     So this how it ends:
     at a corner table
     in a stale cafˇ
     on the boulevard of abulia.
     With a small jug of tepid water
     and the eternal Lipton's teabag
     laid genteelly on the saucer.

Romer has served his time at Oxbridge or Cambridge and on the OED and I appreciate his scholarly investment in words, but the line about 'on the boulevard of abulia' seems rather trite. The second part of the poem is much better and possesses real imaginative capability:

     To slake our ten-year thirst.

     You will not stay.
     And I as always
     have a train for the provinces.
     Even the turn of your calf
     is enough to make me ache.
     The way your blue dress rises.

At its best, Romer's poetry can certainly obtain a prized evanescent quality. Sometimes, when he is more spontaneous and more colloquial, he has a tendency towards the witty turn-of-phrase, as in 'Figment': 'Stopped at source. Not desire / but the knowledge of desiring. // I send the sutras to all and sundry and preach / what I cannot practise'.

The real gift of Romer's poetry is its myth-making, the mixing of the myths of scholars and of love and the incidences of introjection are distinctly his own. There are numerous marvellous examples of this ability. Romer tells his story through books and their traits. The poem 'Threading it all...' is one of my favourites in the collection; it speaks to a need for mentorship and praise from a father-figure:

     Threading it all, and shadowing
     the triumphs
     is something more deeply unsure:

     the intermittent crises
     of self-esteem, the struggle,
     at times despairing, against failure

     and self-exclusion, the need
     that another's vitality
n him,

     the sorrowful walks
     of a soul uncynical
     in the extreme.

One could spend all day praising this collection for its wordplay and the knowledge it has to offer, but I keep coming back to its moments of quiet sophistication and revelation, especially those about the speaker's father in the last section. Consider just three lines from 'Straws' which demonstrate Romer's almost preternatural awareness. He is speaking of his dying father: 'I kiss him briefly on the forehead / --as he would do, and leave my door ajar, / and go downstairs for supper'. I will return frequently to this collection if only for the remembrance of such moments from a poet of strange and wonderful synergies.

David Pollard's Patricides is his first excursion into poetry despite his being a senior member of the academic/literary community and it follows a well-attested tradition. Pollard is interested in the connections between philosophy and poetry and how these two might meet as well as the harmonies and discordances such a meeting might produce. Pollard is concerned with the common cause of God, religion, the role of poetry after the Holocaust, the frailty and abuse of language. All things that most good poets are concerned with, if not so apparently in the texture of their work. In many ways, Patricides is a very good first attempt that examines our duty to our forefathers and literary predecessors. His writing is most distinct and valuable in its navigation of the pacing and pausing in poetry. Consider 'reality':

            into smoke
            we                 breathe
     into the air
             starlight yellow
             echoes against the dawns
             hard ice

There are some strong images here, but I find it a bit too pared down. Where Pollard widens his voice in poems like 'Wer wischt dies Blut von uns ab?' or 'Who will wipe the blood off us?' the effect is more successful: even reminiscent of Rimbaud in its distillations. At all times, this work functions on the poet's handling of puns and double entendres, his demonstration of the slipperiness of language and the concentration of thought, as in 'between gasp':

     between gasp and
           your cautious
        hollow held
        where my
        deafness told

     how burnish
        glowing down
ward when not even
                                          my own
     you leave me

     say no more

Pollard is an interesting thinker rather than an innovator, someone who problematizes our idea of poetic events and the different landscapes and contexts in which they take place.

      © Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein 2009

     Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein is a Visiting Scholar at Massey College
     of the University of Toronto. He is Poetry Editor of the Jewish
in London, England.