Big talk and sung stories

Two poetry reviews: Jay Hopler’s volatile debut collection and thirty years’ worth of Ellen Bryan Voigt’s narrative lyricism.

by Peter Campion
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Green Squall, by Jay Hopler. Yale University Press. $30.00 cloth; $16.00 paper.

Jay Hopler has what musicians call “attack.” He enters his poems immediately, and no matter how ironic or strange his sentences become, his voice clamps each phrase to the page with conviction. Here’s the beginning of his opening poem, “In the Garden”:

      And the sky!
Nooned with the steadfast blue enthusiasm
Of an empty nursery.

In “The Frustrated Angel,” he gives these lines to an otherworldly tormentor much like Henry’s infamous “friend” in the Dream Songs:

That’s mighty big talk, isn’t it, Hopler–coming from a man who
lives with his mother?

And here’s an epigrammatic barb from “Self-Portrait with Whiskey and Pistol”:

Maybe if I surrounded myself with prostitutes and strippers, my
celibacy would feel less like a lack and more like an act
Of heroic self-denial.

You begin to get a sense from these passages of Hopler’s obsessions, and the idiom with which he embodies them. This is a book about intense solitude, a state which for moments seems an ultimate good, but more often feels like imprisonment. Hopler speaks from a literal and metaphorical garden, haunted by extravagant fantasies of escape, and by the Mother who hovers oppressively but never really appears.

In the best poems, this pull between imaginative departure and chastening containment becomes a formal principle. I’m thinking in particular of the two strongest lyrics in the book, “That Light One Finds in Baby Pictures” and “The Boxcars of Consolidated Rail Freight.” Here’s how the latter begins:

      Those angels of history are whispering, again,
That I’m the product of two people who should have known
Better.

Now one of them is dying. The other is going
Crazy over it. I know–. To this day, there’s a space behind

My eyes that stays lit like some small-town museum’s North
Atlantic collection.

I admire how the self-effacing humor of that enjambment into “better” opens into the sincerity of the following sentence, and how that bald statement slides into the strangeness of the museum simile. Hopler’s at his best when the poems move this dramatically.

In the end, I’m grateful for his raggedness. These days, we’re fond of praising first books for not seeming like first books. We’re accustomed to faulting work for being “uneven.” But who’s ever said, “I love that book. It’s so even”? There’s a volatility in Jay Hopler that promises much more than competence and reliability. And I’m eager to see what that will be.

Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, by Ellen Bryant Voigt. W. W. Norton. $25.95.

Maybe the best way to get a sense of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s new selected poems, of their force and precision, would be to look at the first two sentences of “Messenger,” the title poem, and the last in this book:

First I smelled it, hovering near the bed:
distinctly saline, as in a ship’s wake;

a bit of dust and mold, like moth-found fur;
also something grassy, crushed herb, sharper.

After that, when they turned the ward lights out,
the space ship glowing at the nurses’ hub,

his pod stilled and darkened, only the small
digitals updating on the screen,

then I could see–one “sees” in deep gloaming,
though ground-fog makes an airless, formless room–

how fully it loomed behind and larger than
the steel stalk, the sweet translucent fruit.

In dynamic verse movement, these twelve lines work to embody, gorgeously, what would otherwise seem like hocus pocus–the poet’s impression of her father-in-law’s soul leaving his body. If these six couplets provide an opportunity for appreciation, the thirty years of writing represented in this collection offer even more. Most poets fluctuate. Voigt has consistently grown stronger. Her poems from the seventies are slender sculptures, built on an armature of small, striking images and statements. In the following years, Voigt turns toward narrative. At first the results are solid but unsuperlative.

But reading the work that follows, you sense that the experiment with narrative was a departure the poet needed to take. Her next book, Two Trees, marks a genuine breakthrough, one that continues and builds in the book length poem Kyrie (1995) and in Shadow of Heaven (2002). In these collections, without abandoning her narrative ambitions, Voigt returns to the formal strategies of lyric. When she intersperses her ars-poetical tour de force, “Song and Story,” with the lines of a lullaby, her two approaches twine together, coiling into a new intensity.

And as in those lines from “Messenger,” the sentence itself becomes Voigt’s base measure. Her commitment to the syntactic energies that Frost once called “the abstract sound of sense” lends presence and dynamism to Voigt’s primary subjects. She has always been obsessed with forging some link between the living and the dead, and with making a home in a natural world that she sees, shifting her cold eye, as both beautiful and fatal.

The intensification shows no sign of letting up. Wanting to end my review with a list of Voigt’s best poems, I was stopped short. How not include all ten of the new poems in the collection?

Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, Other People, and a monograph on the painter Mitchell Johnson.

© 2007 by Peter Campion. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org

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~ by ericedits on March 18, 2008.

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