Sunday, February 3, 2013

Two Poetry Books

Over winter break, while I was away at a colony, I finally had time to sit down and read carefully two new poetry books: Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaugnessey and The Two Yvonnes by Jessica Greenbaum.

The authors are both close friends, a happenstance that always makes the experience of a book different than one by a stranger. You know the person's voice, and her concerns. You have heard about the book along the way, possibly seen drafts and covers, know the behind-the-scenes of publication, stories of excitement or disappointment. The book doesn't stand alone as a text ordered online, or picked off a shelf. It comes as part of a life, and a friendship.

This can go either way; the friendship can overwhelm the text, which often occurs in the form of a resistance to reading it. Or the friendship, or blood relation, can result in a misreading: it can be instead a form of sleuthing. Who is who? Am I one of the characters? What seems made up to strangers becomes autobiographical to those in the know. Every author has stories of being mistaken for their characters. I wrote a story about a woman who got divorced, and a person who knew me very well kept referring to my 'first husband.' "Do you mean my husband?" "No, the one from the divorce." "I have never been divorced."

Poetry works differently on me in this regard than fiction. The personal is intrinsic, yet the filter of condensed metaphor guides and glides me past a preoccupation with the autobiographical. I was more clearly able to see how metaphor worked in these books by reading them all at once--though I meted each book out over several days, a poem morning, noon and night in my own version of a daily office. The poems were my reward during a month of dedicated writing; each one is beautiful, and the books are carefully put together as whole experiences. I do not intend to review them here; look them up to read their praises, or better yet, buy them and read them yourself. What I want to say is what they did to me. They reminded me, or showed me in a new way, that when you read really good poems closely, in a relaxed and receptive state, there is a moment when they suddenly give up their essence. It's like walking by a woman on the street who's wearing an excellent perfume. Suddenly, you're shocked to be included in her scent.

In the Dark

Often writing feels like groping your way up an unfamiliar set of stairs in the pitch black. With no railing. No sense of how many stairs there are. No way to know whether or not you'll make it to the top.

It takes a lot of faith to make this climb. What does one have faith in, exactly? Is it the possibility of saying what one feels? Is it a drive to pursue a vision one has already had--a flash that may have come in a second, wholly formed? To capture these private events in writing, they must be subjected to the labor of dividing them painstakingly into words, sentences, paragraphs. This is dark, fumbling territory, at least for a while.

I am comforted in these stages of interior darkness by matching them with working surrounded by the dark sky of early, early morning. By getting up before dawn and writing when the color of night is adamantly black, and the only way to believe it will ever change is to remember that it got lighter yesterday, and the day before.