The Art of Deflection

Marianne Boruch’s newest poetry collection defers the usual allurements.

By Michael Robbins
Poetry Media Service

Grace, Fallen from, by Marianne Boruch. Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.

Even the title of Marianne Boruch’s new book demonstrates that she is practiced at the art of deflection, an indexer of minute changes that gradually make larger differences. Grace, Fallen from gently replicates its sense at the formal level: grace gives way to past participle until the fall is inscribed in the preposition’s lowercase initial. The astonishing opening poem, “A Moment,” is a showcase for Boruch’s strengths. It begins:

Maybe it’s common, this sort
of first meeting. But once, before a guest house
in Germany, the friend
of a friend to come by, and dinner—
that’s it, we’ll go to dinner, have the famous
spargel, that rare white asparagus, only
in May, our evening pre-arranged by phone,
by email. I need to say again we
hadn’t met.

So far, a skillful little poem, not bad. Only the edgy distractedness of the lines—that deceptively off-handed quality of reported speech—suggests the transformations to come. Boruch is waiting at the door for the man she hasn’t met, while another woman waits at the curb for someone else:

Then the friend
of my friend — could that be?—his
parking, his pulling himself
out of that tiny car.
Please understand. I’m usually
right there rushing in, because the world
requires that, loves the quickening
of that. But I was
or I wasn’t. Or I was small
but there is smaller. To my left, a door.
Some tree flowering at my right.
I watched as he
to that woman said my name
so charmingly, a question, tilting
his head, are you …? sorry to disturb,
are you …?
And in that pause—
her vague focusing on him, her loose
finding him now—I leaned forward,
simply curious: what
would she say? smile? yes? tell him yes?
So thread breaks. So water in a glass
clouds and maybe it clears.

There is so much that is right in this passage—the man “pulling himself” out of his “tiny” car; the opaquely mimetic “But I was / or I wasn’t. Or I was small / but there is smaller”; the precision of “her loose / finding him now,” which exquisitely nails the way a person looks around for the source as she realizes she’s being addressed, her expression changing as she lights upon it. Few writers would so deftly have identified the multiplicity in such an ordinary, even boring scene.

“Some tree flowering at my right”: a lesser poet would have looked up the tree’s name, or used the most mellifluous or metaphorical one she could find. But the poet doesn’t know what sort of tree it is, so it remains an open marker of her experience, a possibility that partakes of the Ashberian without creaking beneath symbolism or music. Other poems similarly defer the allure of the readily poetic:

Somewhere out there, those crows
won’t shut up. Maybe they can’t. And then
they do. Which is why the thrush—I think
it’s a thrush—comes out
from underneath with its weird
echoy thing, huge now but—plaintive,
my mother might have said.

—From “In the Woods: a Suite”

Like Elizabeth Bishop, Boruch refuses to see more than there is in things—but her patience, her willingness to wait for the film of familiarity to slip, allows her to see what is there with a jeweler’s sense of facet and flaw. The call of what might be a thrush—what am I, an ornithologist?—is a “weird / echoy thing”; “plaintive” is a poetaster’s word. Boruch inhabits that Stevensian space between the beauty of inflections and the beauty of innuendoes, when the world is weird and reverberating, before thesauruses have been consulted. “Because beauty’s / not generous, isn’t anything / but its passage.”

Michael Robbins is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. His poems and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, Chicago Review, and other publications. This article first appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Marianne Boruch, and her poetry, at

© 2009 by Michael Robbins. All rights reserved.


~ by ericedits on April 21, 2009.

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