When reading the most recent releases from The Catenary Press, an Iowa City-based publisher of chapbooks, one might initially overlook Margaret Ross’s Decay Constant: Ross’s collection came out alongside volumes by Robyn Schiff and Jennifer Moxley that showcase the restless, virtuosic lyricism for which those poets have been celebrated. They also show the attention to ambitious poetics that has quickly distinguished Catenary.
Read those books by Moxley and Schiff, of course, but brace yourself for Ross’s: Decay Constant’s ten pages offer more vivifying accomplishment than many full-length collections. This chapbook is the first I’ve seen of Ross’s work, but it doesn’t “show promise” as much as swear a sweltering vow. In its three poems—which move from the domestic assemblage of “A Timeshare,” through the “steady ruby pulse” and “permanent zenith” of “Of Late,” into the titular poem’s “kaleidoscope in [the] mouth”—Ross displays an unabashed, sensual intelligence that propulsively alternates between the tapped-brake of “yes no” and the engine-rev of “yes though.”
The stanza in which those phrases appear continues, and Dickinson should come to mind:
if there’s such a thing as time at all I never saw it
move and if that’s so then what am I
afraid of? I hung a muslin curtain to prove
breeze, a nimble petal, tall fluctuating seraphim
who keeps watch over me.
If you enjoy the taste-tester’s game of flavors, you might spot a top note of, say, Lucie Brock-Broido (vintage: The Master Letters) and strains of Robert Lowell in Ross’s hurtling, fervent arabesques, though these poems also suggest the influences I heard Iowa Writers’ Workshop students praise on my most recent trip to their city: Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path, Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation, the enduring and complicated legacy of Jorie Graham. In any case, Ross’s well-made poems invite such castings; the resultant pile-up of associations, like her poems’ at times circuitously compacted cleverness, can be overwhelming, but no more than I hope every evening will be. It’s refreshing to read a poet so unafraid of lived intensity and wit; in Ross’s work, you don’t see any of the trendy nonchalance of poetry that aspires to bar chatter and TV sketch comedy (I love bars, and I love television, but I most ardently love something else in poems, which, if the excellence of every art is its intensity, nonchalance leaves wanting.). Here’s the beginning of the title poem:
Did the time change. Did little
savings of a day glint on blades
wind tilted towards the illuminated
capital. Starting again, did change
course. A sentence rougher on the side
where fur used to grow brown meadow
fluttering across the hide was, flayed, a Book
of Hours listing prayers for the tolls
that turned the pages, Venetian blinds
drawn over so we can’t
say anymore where the room is from
inside. Glare melting its windows. Air liquid
iodine to anyone looking in.
But my allusions, my associations, my quotations, only composite, giving a menu in place of a meal: rhapsody feels fitting when recommending this work, which is rich work, of muchness and faith that “all the loyal / idiot details know what to do,” and I trust it. Decay Constant provides the type of feast that could make one content to dine out lavishly once every few months, and pay dearly for it, so that the next months might be inflected by something of that savor. Margaret Ross, I’m glad I spent this morning with your chapbook; thank you for its poems.
This post is the sixth in a series of brief blog-reviews I’ll write this month. Previous posts in the series discuss works by Jena Osman and Yevgeniy Fiks, Kevin Goodan, Cole Swensen and Hadara Bar-Nadav, Miguel Hernández and Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, and James Tate.