Seism and Schism

A review of Colosseum by Katie Ford.

By Sasha Dugdale
Poetry Media Service

Katie Ford’s new book, Colosseum, takes its title from a startling meditation on the Colosseum in Rome. “Built for slaughter,” the building saw gladiatorial combat, execution, and wild beasts tearing each other apart, and when the Roman Empire fell and the arena was left untended, exotic plants spread over the abandoned ground, sowed from seeds in the waste of the beasts. Caught at some oblique angle within the poem, another set of reflections concern the mayfly, whose 400 minutes of life and physical slightness are set against its survival “through antiquity with collapsing / horses, hailstorms and diffracted confusions of light.” The tiny mayfly and the massive tiered structure of the Colosseum are both cycles of destruction and renewal, turning slow and small, like the wheels of God:

When it is finished it is said
the expiring flies gather beneath boatlights
or lampposts and die under them minutely,
drifting down in a flock called snowfall.

Against the backdrop of constant mortality comes the real tragedy, spiritual desolation, which numbs the voice and renders it hoarse and hollow, the speaker clutching at the straws of objectivity and remoteness: “If I remember correctly,” “I said to myself.” The site of suffering is no longer the arena without, but the injured soul within: “When one is the site of so much pain, one must pray / to be abandoned.”

Ford’s collection has at its heart the more recent tragedy of New Orleans, blasted by Hurricane Katrina and then flooded. It is in three parts, the first dealing with the storm, the second with flight and return, and the third with grief. My apportioning seems rather crass: Colosseum is characterized by lyricism and fluidity, and its narrative rises out of a tangled confusion of events and objects. Much in the manner of a disaster, we are never entirely sure of sequence; we live through dark days and random happenings that must be pieced together intuitively, for they hardly belong together logically. Tragedy wipes out all linear notions: time, history, inheritance. One disaster merges into another, one victim into another. In a remarkable prose poem, “Division,” flight from New Orleans is within a landscape of constant geological movement: creasing, dividing. Catherine of Siena lived in hills like this, muses the lyrical voice, scouring her throat raw with twigs, so the communion she so desired would be felt:

She scalded herself at the baths, ran away to a cave, shoved twigs into her mouth so that when the host traveled down her raw throat she would indeed feel something, even a god breaking inside her.

Colosseum is a study of the psychology of survival. We are left in no doubt. This matter goes to the heart of the human condition, our condition:

We love the stories of flood and the few
told to prepare in advance by their god.
In that story, the saved are
always us, meaning:
whoever holds the book.
—“Ark”

At its most immediate, this is simply the attempt to grasp the cup of grief which runneth over: the woman who uses the wind to open her wrists; the desire to be an unthinking vessel with no heart to be torn into “strips of weed” (“Vessel”). But then there are the seismic shifts in our understanding that happen slowly, over time. There is nothing of permanence. People are lonely in their suffering. In the sonnet “Injury,” which opens with the plastic curtains around hospital beds, the injury is the transparency of those same curtains: “the thought we could not be harmed” has been felled and the convention of the sonnet is nothing more than a terrible empty irony.

Tragedy and devastation are hard things to write about in poetry, which doesn’t of course mean that they shouldn’t be attempted. There are terrible risks: voyeurism, sensationalism, the simple overbearing fact of the event. On the other hand, they are the stuff of poetry: Homer, Shakespeare, the poets of World War I in Britain, Mandelstam, Celan—all have provided a poetry that stands at some oblique angle to the suffering. Do you need to witness or partake of suffering to write about it? I think perhaps you do, if only to find the correct oblique angle from which to write. Katie Ford’s is a finely wrought lyrical beauty, a poetry of detail and care, but she has set it within an epic arc—the small wheel of individual life revolves within the larger human epic. And though we know that she has felt everything on her own pulse, still nothing is personal—the poems rise up through the clutter of the receding floods to become observations on the universality of suffering.

Excerpted from “Devastation and Digression,” originally published in the February 2009 issue of Poetry magazine and available at www.poetryfoundation.org. Sasha Dugdale is a poet and translator. She recently translated Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for BBC Radio. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation.

© 2009 by Sasha Dugdale. All rights reserved.

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~ by ericedits on December 1, 2009.

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