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Robin Becker

Tension and Release*


A poet’s control of tension and release gives her poems their individuality and exerts the pressures to which a reader’s body and mind respond. The tautness may take the form of tantalizing line turns or narrative excitements. Similarly, the release may occur in syntactical resolution or epiphanic image. Each of the four books under discussion here satisfies my hunger for anticipation and absolution, for contention that finds its way to quiet. Further, the poems reveal indeterminate and lesbian sexualities and an ease with the embodied self. Before the LGBTQ rights movement, a non hetero-normative identity might have dictated subject matter. These poets, all writing a generation after Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich pioneered the territory, take up a wide range of subjects and themes. Feminist sexual politics, assimilated into the poets’ worldview, plays out less predictably.

A stark solitude abides at the center of Andrea Cohen’s Furs Not Mine, and thus my initial surprise at coming away from the collection comforted. “Loneliness is systemic,” the speaker declares in “On an Opera in Progress,” offering a three-word ars poetica for the book. These mostly brief, lyric poems make elliptical moves and then often close with a Dickinson-like clarity. The title poem illustrates Cohen’s mastery of the short form:

The Russians have a way of saying
what must be said, and one

need not be or speak Russian
to comprehend the sense

of furs not mine. One need only
to have known deep cold, an inmost

Siberia made more Siberian by one
who basks nearby, oblivious in her Bolivia.

The speaker argues, with the colloquial yet curiously formal phrase “saying / what must be said,” that an international language of the heart links all who have “known deep cold.” In addition, she enriches the shared humanity of “inmost // Siberia,” by deploying the release and relief of rhyme (“Siberia” / “Bolivia”). Within eight lines, the word one appears three times, underscoring the “uninhabited” quality of Cohen’s metaphorical Siberia. Like the focal shift in the closing line of Shakespeare’s widely known Sonnet 73 (“To love that well which thou must leave ere long”) toward the youth’s awareness of his own mortality, Cohen’s last line swerves: she leaves us not with the one who has known “deep cold” but with the one “oblivious.”
Loss takes many shapes in Furs Not Mine. “I miss / my enemy” the narrator mourns in “The Wages of Peace.” “Wishful” opens with “After her last / breath I waited / for her next one,” and from “Cliffside,” these three lines: “I realize what fundamental / trade death makes: in lieu / of you, the memory of you.” This last, opening and closing with the same two words (“of you”), creates an inescapable ache and resolves the realization with longing. I found these poems concerning the narrator’s mother’s death rich with compassion, prosodic rigor, and wit, despite the circumscribed theme. They float in the short-lined couplets Cohen favors (twenty-nine of sixty-four poems take this form), permitting brevity to do its work, as in “The Committee Weighs In,” composed of forty-two syllables.

I tell my mother
I’ve won the Nobel Prize.

Again? She says. Which
discipline this time?

It’s a little game
we play: I pretend

I’m somebody, she
pretends she isn’t dead.

Cohen balances the loss of the mother with the humor of “a little game” of the imagination. The self-effacing “I pretend // I’m somebody” echoes Dickinson’s “How dreary—to be—Somebody!” and emphasizes the daughter’s isolation in bereavement. I admire the bold, spare voice of the child who seeks to “tell” her mother the news, prefiguring the child on the high dive in “Boiling Point” who, having gained her mother’s attention, wants not to leap but to remain on the board.
Small moments sharply defined and wedded to revelatory observations, single word repetition, and an unsparing editorial eye give some of the poems in Furs Not Mine a koan-like stillness. “First Thought, Best Thought” concludes with these lines: “The job of the blossom / is to bloom, to be // beautifully unschooled in ruin.” Those five syllables—“is to bloom, to be”— burst forth with compressed energy, their alliterative, single-syllable “t” and “b” words crowding the line. Then, with polysyllabic words, Andrea Cohen elongates the “education” that ends in “ruin.” Like Jane Hirshfield, she builds an unadorned scaffolding and invites readers to climb, sit, observe.

At the end of a poem from The Gaffer called “Women in Prison,” Celeste Gainey situates her readers in Sybil Brand, a now-defunct women’s correctional facility, where she  ’d gone as head of a film crew’s electrical team. Her work—to light the shots—would eventuate in the 1974 ABC documentary from which the poem takes its title—a program that helped raise awareness about prison reform:

Joan Churchill, our camerawoman,
hand-holding her Éclair, shoots the strip
search in her moccasins, soundless
along shellacked linoleum—

New Year’s Eve, I’m back in L.A.,
in a Safeway in Silver Lake.
Too brightly fluorescent,
everywhere I look
I see beautiful faces in lockup.

A glossary at the back of the book explains “Éclair” (a 16 mm film used by documentary cinematographers in the ’70s and ’80s) as well as other colorful terms detailing aspects of filmmaking. Making poetic use of her career as a lighting designer or “gaffer,” Gainey deftly illuminates a scene and its several meanings. In the passage above, the speaker juxtaposes the silent filming of a prison strip search with her own “Safeway” experience under fluorescent lights. The sibilant s moving through these nine lines yokes camerawomen, strip search subjects, and narrator in an inescapable bond, resolving as the speaker carries the faces from prison “everywhere.”
Iconic sites in Los Angeles and New York City help establish the cultural milieu of the collection. Describing the interior of a popular (now gone) L.A. restaurant in “tail o’ the cock”, the speaker notes:

. . . the maître d’ at his podium, little pillow of light
on his face, oversize menus, flocked covers,
tassels swinging, he ushers you into the low-
ceilinged labyrinth; loge of plush booths tucked
into nocturnal alcoves,

glow of tiny table lanterns bearding
the famous faces. Everyone here
to be seen, but hiding . . .

Simultaneously revealing and masking, the “little pillow of light” and the “glow of tiny table lanterns” soften the picture; alliterated “l” sounds in “flocked,” “plush,” and “nocturnal” further the careful artifice. Similarly, the “bearding” of “famous faces” conjures the social masquerade performed by closeted gay or lesbian celebrities. And the punning title of the poem emphasizes the hyper-sexualized “labyrinth” of the entertainment industry.
In many poems, readers get an inside look at a talented woman in a man’s profession who declaims as a child in “best boy” that “When I grow up, I’m going to be a man.”To her own sexuality, Gainey brings a playful frankness, declaring in “before talkies” how “An actor of the silent era, / I learn to be manly & discreet.” I especially enjoy the poems that showcase Gainey’s gutsiness on the job, as in these lines from “between takes”:

Me in my 501s & Mighty Mouse T-shirt
20 feet up, work gloves & pliers protruding,
the brute arc light I tend sputters & hisses
beside me. Like that famous New Yorker cover
showing the world as seen from 9th Avenue—
the land of make believe rises up
to swallow me whole.

Terrifying and thrilling, the gaffer’s job requires crafting a believable “make believe.” Here, to light Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” she dons the image of an animated male cartoon superhero. Gainey’s perspective, twenty feet in the air, allows for a momentary absorption into Saul Steinberg’s celebrated map of the world from a New Yorker’s perspective. Merging cartoon, graphic design, film, and lighting, the poem builds to a dangerous “swoon.”
The Gaffer takes readers on a techie’s romp. By referencing a dozen films and tv specials, Gainey sheds light on the politics of the film industry as well as the industry’s allure.

The term “once removed” designates, among cousins, their relational distance within the family, and Elizabeth Bradfield makes good use of these two words in her collection’s title, alluding to the degree and kind of separation human beings experience from the rest of the natural world. Unlike Yeats’s speaker in “Sailing to Byzantium,” who declares, “Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing,” and who comes to prize the beauty of artifice, Bradfield’s speakers seek to realign themselves with the natural world, to correct for “five-lanes and conveniences” and “the clench of the daily.” In this way, Bradfield reminds me of Mary Oliver, who weds close observation to philosophical or spiritual concerns, and of Maxine Kumin, whose shapely lyrics decry species extinction and habitat loss.
A traveling naturalist based on Cape Cod, Bradfield writes of year-around dangers experienced by Provincetown’s fishing fleet and seasonal encounters with bears, birds, and whales. She documents the interconnectedness of community and sea in “In the Inner Harbor”:

The Chico Jess doesn’t rise
though we want it to, this relic
of a time when we raised boats
not because of seepage but
for salvage. The town debates
who should foot the bill of its removal.

Partially rhyming, “seepage” and “salvage” encode the history of this harbor and entwine the fates of contemporary locals with the diminished fishing industry on which the town formerly thrived. Eco-tourism now occupies a place in the town’s economy—as when, in the spring of 2011, an astonishing number of right whales prompt an influx of out-of-towners, with locals “scrambling to open shops // for the odd boom” (“Obligations to the Unprecedented”).
The uneasy connection between ecological mindfulness and expedient economics complicates Bradfield’s perspective, making her a trustworthy guide. In the prose poem “Eagles Every Day,” we join an Inside Passage tour group to view a Native American dance performance. In addition to the voice of the group leader, we hear a young dancer: “There was a totem pole on the lawn of my junior high that none of us ever really looked at until Todd and Wade cut it down one night with a hand saw and left it toppled in the grass.” Bradfield captures here the nihilism felt by some Native youth, even as she acknowledges the realities of globetrotting: “We filed out, saying thank you, thank you. Sincere. Someone, probably the purser, handed an envelope to the woman by the door.” A familiar tourist experience, the show leaves all parties acutely aware of their roles in the “performance.”
A thematically related poem, “Distance Education,” describes Alaskan students “who need this class / to keep their jobs” and the teacher who knows they will not complete assignments “because they had to take kids / away from fathers or because // cloudberries ripened in the bog.” Bradfield acknowledges the strain on all players and the ironies in their lives. The teacher confesses: “I don’t know when murre eggs / are ready for harvest or when / walrus meat tastes best.” The “distance” between teacher and student— cultural, geographical— makes “education” problematic; Bradfield resolves the poem (and the course) with a resonant three-word knell—“I fail them.”
Encounters in the wild, in non-traditional families, and in distinctive cultural settings occasion poems in which the speaker negotiates physical and psychological proximity. The ghazal “At Sea,” a rich rendering of weeks on a boat, includes this couplet on the speaker’s intimate life: “Rendezvous in the gear locker, tryst in dry stores. Unbound / horizon and surge. A pity it’s strange to be queer at sea.” I admire Bradfield’s handling of the contrast between “gear locker” and “dry stores” and “unbound / horizon and surge,” vivifying the confinement the queer couple experiences. The “confinement” of living in a single (human) body comes up throughout the book, but most memorably in “On the Habits of Swallows.” Swimming in a pond, the speaker suddenly finds herself at the center of a feeding frenzy, as a hundred tree swallows seeking water-striders “hit the water like skipped stones.”

                                    . . . I was in the water
and they, beaks audibly snapping, blue neck-feathers glinting—not
really blue of course—they hit the surface
around my head, and at last—listen—at last I
was the surface, too. Or as close to that as I could ever get.

The repetition of “at last” emphasizes her longing to merge with the water. Melodically satisfying, the iambic closure (“as close to that as I could ever get”) momentarily rectifies the desire “to be nothing / to startle from,” with the speaker’s inescapable embodiment. Sometimes, Bradfield shows, a sensual, psychically pleasurable connection with the natural world becomes transformative, as when “Getting Out” opens with these lines: “How in love with myself I was / on the iced-over river, Alaska Range / sprawled miles around . . .” Traveling on skis, harnessed to a dog (in a sport called skijoring), the speaker discovers something “vast and permissible.”

Natasha Saje loves unusual words (in several languages), confounding juxtapositions, assorted facts from a wide range of disciplines, and cultural histories—and then finding the best shapes for her formally inventive poems. An abecedary, her collection Vivarium includes not twenty-six poems but fifty (with certain letters, such as “D” requiring three poems and “S” requiring four) in a virtual overflow of affection for the alphabet’s powers. Both vivarium and abecedary act as “containers,” structuring Saje’s list-making, catalogs, appropriated texts, definitions, litanies, and prose poems. A poem titled “R” includes small graphic illustrations (of a ring, a rake, a rattlesnake) embedded into the right-justified text; one of two poems identically-titled “Q” consists of twenty-one questions. “N” includes the word no written in over two dozen languages. Saje’s contagious appetite for the world makes reading Vivarium a heady experience: I never knew where the next poem might take me, but I wanted to go. Her own nonce forms provide some of the book’s pleasures, as in “Against Chronology,” a list of (mostly) prepositional phrases with alphabetically arranged objects:

via antigens
unlike Beethoven
until carbon dating
under a dynamo
toward the Eocene epoch
to the Flintstones

The unpredictable juxtapositions tumble forward: places (Qatar, Woolworth’s); people (Freud, Gutenberg, the Vikings); scientific terminology (sulfides, graviton, Y chromosome); literature (Well of Loneliness, “Wreck of the Deutschland”). Finally, “aboard the zephyr of time,” readers experience the ahistorical resolution, a new “chronology” replacing conventional notions of sequence and linearity.
Saje delights readers with apt pairings of form and theme. The forty-line pantoum “Palimpsest,” for example, enacts the passage of time, as a woman returns, year after year, to Rome, finding pensioni, restaurants, and buildings changed. Containing the “layered” aspect of an object or place—reconceived or reused over years—the palimpsest reveals its history. In the pantoum, as the repeated lines in each quatrain change meanings, stanzas encode a palimpsest of their own making. Similarly, the single-stanza list poem called “Alibi” performs its title by offering twenty-four syntactically identical “excuses.” The absurd lines (“I was comparing egg yolks to pumpkins” or “I was shown the old slaughterhouse by some cats”) prove the speaker’s dodgy non-compliance with whatever is being asked of her. Yet, two lines related to writing—“I was lost in Reverdy” and “I was thinking about Flaubert putting in commas, then taking them out”—emphasize the necessity of dream time and solitude. The poem ends with “I was planning the next time I could travel here / and wrap solitude around me like cashmere.” Saje’s drive to communicate wills an ever-more-innovative search for prosodic forms—note, letter, ode, essay, litany, prayer, index, and interview—yet the prizing of solitude balances her appetite for engagement.
I view the whole of Vivarium as a love poem to language, but the collection also includes memorable love poems in the more traditional sense. Elegy for a deceased partner, the poem “Circumflex” opens with “I gave away his clothes” and ends with “winter is winter / no matter whom or what / I miss or gave away.” The circumflex, in French a sign over a vowel to indicate a missing “s,” references an absence: “festival becomes fête (fête d’ anniversaire) / paste becomes pâte (how we loved to cook)”. Curving around the heart, “the left ventricle circumflex” carries blood to the nodal artery. Together, these meanings yoke the essential and the nonessential, the present and the past, the clothes that “make and do not make the man.” A very different love poem, a sonnet on the letter “H” allows Saje a chance to riff on alliteration and rhyme:

O how we hanky panky harum
scarum in our happy home, dancing hootchy
kootchy. Sure, it makes for hugger mugger
but we give a hoot for happenstance.
The yard is full o’ hound and hares; the door
adorned with harlequins; in the closets, hand-
me-downs. If Hammurabi and his Queen come
by we won’t be hoity-toity, we’ll
offer haggis or humble pie. Our bed
floats on hocus-pocus (our corpore
wholly habeas) and the kitchen hums
a hymn, Hail to Higgledy-Piggledy.
If the world can’t call our hurly burly hunky
dory, let it hara-kiri if it dares.

The life force bursting from these lines belies the carefully crafted tone Saje achieves. The rhyming double-trochaics—“hanky panky harum / scarum,” “hootchy kootchy,” “hoity-toity,” “hocus-pocus,” “hurly burly hunky / dory” and “hara-kiri”—secure the poem in a colloquial jauntiness. Depicting the elements of a “happy home,” the poet includes sexual fervor, the welcoming of strangers, the presence of domestic pets, a playful approach to daily life, and a determined rejection of the judgments of others.

In these four books, the tension-and-release trajectory frequently moors in tropes that explain or reflect the collection’s concerns. At the end of a book chiefly located in loss, Andrea Cohen constructs (“Invention of Grief”) a totem or voodoo of sorrow. While the speaker endows her assemblage with attributes (“fur,” “six hind legs,” “one / month to live”), she cannot control Grief’s behavior and must acknowledges Grief’s “wild / antecedents: happiness / and sans souci.” The word “antecedent” refers to ancestors as well as previous states of feeling, making this loss—of joy and carefree times—even more difficult to bear and pulling together the book’s thematic strands.
Metaphor, establishing one aspect of a poem’s “culture,” can link disparate elements in an embrace or emphasize the awkward or broken aspects of relationships. For example, the gaffer, in the age of computer generated imagery, says this of the “source and origin” (“fons et origo”) of her passion: “My encounters with illumination: / exquisitely framed tableaux recalled / in a museum, like Vermeer still lives on a wall . . .” With Vermeer, the seventeenth century’s great painter and student of light and shadow, Gainey links her obsession with light to a central concern in the visual arts that spans centuries and movements. The last section of Elizabeth Bradfield’s Once Removed includes poems titled “Relative Proximity” and “Relational.” In these pieces, the poet wrestles with distance between family members related by blood or by affectional affiliation; in each, a birth or death reshapes the poet’s awareness, embedding her in the mortality all share. Of the two “manifestos” with which Natasha Saje frames Vivarium, “Anathema” brings readers closest to Saje’s credo—employing the familiar diction and syntax of the Bible. Saje’s faith, however, resides in turning the language to her own purposes:

Let the wrath and the fury of the righteous henceforth be kindled against me
And lay upon me all the spells they think they can conjure—

Destroy my name under every religion and
Cut me off for my undoing from all such tribes—

So that I may live as though I am already dead.

The ancient Samurai wisdom in the last line sets a high bar for the poet and for Vivarium as a collection. The bifurcation of tension and release gives way as the poem concludes; the poet claims a way to live that must, of necessity, arise from a passionate fearlessness.


*An essay-review of

Furs Not Mine. By Andrea Cohen. Tribeca, NY: Four Way Books, 2015. 104 pp. $15.95, paper.
The Gaffer. By Celeste Gainey. Pasadena, CA: Arktoi Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, 2015. 112 pp. $18.95, paper.
Once Removed. By Elizabeth Bradfield. New York, NY: Persea Books, 2015. 80 pp. $15.95, paper.
Vivarium. By Natasha Saje. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2014. 86 pp. $16.95, paper.






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