New Voices Commentary

David Baker

On Priscilla Sneff’s O Woolly City
Winner of the 2004 Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry

As poetry editor of this magazine, I am pleased
to serve as the continuing judge of the Kenyon Review /
Zoo Press Prize in Poetry. This is the fourth year of our sponsorship
of the award, given annually by Zoo Press to a poet for the publication
of his or her first full-length collection. Zoo Press has emerged
in four years as a vigorous and adventurous press for new and established
poets, and we salute the editors and staff at Zoo for their advocacy
of the art and for the fine quality of their books.

Priscilla Sneff is the 2004 winner of the Kenyon Review Prize in
Poetry and the subject of this latest New Voices feature. Her book,
O Woolly City, will follow Beth Ann Fennelly’s Open
House
(2002), Christopher Cessac’s Republic Sublime
(2003), and Randall Mann’s Complaint in the Garden
(2004). Readers will notice a considerable variety among these fine
poets, from the spacious inclusions of Fennelly, to the formal composure
of Mann, to the allusive but richly sympathetic narratives of Cessac.
But I think these three poets share, with Sneff, the qualities of
intensity, precision, visionary depth, and great musical and compositional
skill.

With aplomb and daring announcement, Priscilla Sneff commences O
Woolly City
in “New Science”:

Here begins a new science: Bells stirring their metal
tongues,
Bending their savvy vowels ’round buildings—Hooey,
Hooey—
Sounding us out. Oh, the city is finding us out, and
A gentle siege that is, dear, your advancing the book-mark
Into the coming, imperfectly-remembered age,
Crittering urgent English. . . .

The work here conveys the tangible wisdom—as Emerson said
of Whitman—of a long foreground, the experience of a mature
writer for whom complexity is anything but a glib or raw show, a
writer for whom the poetic occasion arises not from assignment but
authenticity and purpose. The enlivened juxtaposition of formal
discourse and the “savvy,” hooting colloquial, the intersection
of intimate knowledge and urbane prescience, the wit and linguistic
pleasure—these are some of Sneff’s not-so-secret secrets.
She is like an old troubadour poet brandishing the wand of a postmodern
trickster, a mixer of syntax and matter, self-conscious song and
wild ceremony. Like Whitman as well as Hart Crane and T. S. Eliot
before her, she finds her subject in both personality (and its evasions)
and the city (and its discontents):

        New
science begins here
—an alchemy, a latin,
An argent stirred back from the dead, by God!, back from the dead!
Argent’s breathing itself into being, braiding itself
In our hair—this kind of science, a sex. The booty is
Silence. The sentence So dark and high a style. Troubled
silks:
The curved arm, the city’s, trails in the Sound. O Manhattan.

This passage is delightful for its many methods of knowing: the
erotic knowledge of sensual bodies, the “I know” of
scio
, the resurrection of dead languages into a currency that
is both spendable and timely. Sneff’s puns are as allusive
as her narrative is elusive, always on the move.

In “The Year of the City One,” she extends the urban
setting and permits us a possible backwards glance into her speaker’s
past, or perhaps a double-exposed portrait of her present. Is this
Boston, on the “bank of the Charles”? A memory of childhood?
Or is the speaker’s intense isolation the real site for her
vision in the time-telling waters, not representing a memory at
all but rather the desire for erotic companionship, familial relationship?
“O the waters stirred as though the man were dead / And no
father was, mother was, daughter— / It’s Time bears
me now by the dark water / And no more am I bitter. . . .”
Thus the male figure blurs, transforming into a character signified
simply as X. Husband? Daimon? “In time skin smarts against
skin now: mine and X’s / Whose arm span I stir in now. Him
I have husbanded, loved. . . .” So deftly does Sneff maneuver
her scenes and shuffle the timing; so powerfully memory and imagination
elide to “stir” within each moment’s still scenery.

Sneff’s poems seem pressed into form, bearing their densities
with great capability. Her long lines may hold six, seven, even
more stresses, her sentences unfold like many-hinged wings, and
the barely revealed narrative circumstances accrue into a poetry
of powerful effect, tangible grief, and enduring song. In “Chance,”
her speaker’s “hope for change” adjusts itself—by
a single letter—to assert that “Chance became my
science
.” The singer-alchemist’s wonderment leads
her to follow the circumstances of her life “like a lover,”
now “like a river.” As here, the power of Sneff’s
work derives from a radical tension between the speaker’s
commanding language and her passivity toward circumstance, or perhaps
better, her willingness to follow the “compass rose”
of her knowing affections.

Thus the poems concurrently proceed and recede. Like her evolving
“change[s] of heart,” Sneff journeys on a single page
from a place of “new currency” to the “stony slopes
of ancient Salonika.” The poetic landscape slips under our
feet, evasive, clarifying, anxious. Likewise the poems shift—from
prose poem to villanelle, daimon to daughter, Sapphic to the puns
of a riddle. In “Song,” a nearly heart-breaking modesty
emerges in Sneff’s reminiscent formality. Her rhymes are gentle;
yet they also find delight in witty juxtaposition, as “take
me in” resounds in “inside my skin,” and as the
prospect of the lovers’ being “together” vanishes
in the rippled moon-glow on the “river.”

Riddles and puns, pastorals and lullabies. O Woolly City
is an anthology of poetic types and rhetorical varieties, reminding
me at times of the elliptical histories of Geoffrey Hill, the syntactic
densities of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and enticing me with the barely
revealed biographical details of her own curious speakers. As the
poems proceed, and just out of focus, we see the shape, decay, and
reformation of family and marriage, the (imagined?) birth of a daughter,
even as we marvel at Sneff’s many forms of knowing and unknowing,
her restless science. She assumes in turn the masks of zoologist
and alchemist, mapmaker and wanderer, chemotherapist and mythologist.
She will not hold still: “And who is this croaks,
‘My dear, my dear, / I shall carry you over the lintel and
through the white doors.’”

These lines—assertive, not interrogative—are the final
lines of “The Firebird,” the central poem in Sneff’s
last section of O Woolly City. Her book culminates just
so, in a suite of poems tracing the appearance and disappearance
of animals, ghosts, real and unreal species of mythological vision.
“The Firebird” iterates the measure of Sneff’s
synthetic imagination, her poetics of slippage, addition, and repair.
From the fire-born “flocks of ascending white tracts”
to the “nervy world burning through nightmare,” we follow
her speaker through a London landscape that seems explosive, diseased,
and erotic, at once. She wants the “desire and the pursuit
of / The whole. / The mere vision . . .” even as
she dissembles her narrative into ellipses and fragments: “O
Love is absurd O gilded flack / Each sonnet.” So the modern
images of airport and jetliner are rendered in archaic gilding,
as the humans are depicted with a biologist’s remove:

[I] see a hazy flock, sleep-fraught and night-flying, of huge,
light,
Mechanical birds. See the delicate slim-limbed primates
Traversing the shattered curbs in silverish streamlets. Greet
One visitant after another, delightedly!, but never on the first
sight.

Never on first sight, indeed. This is the real thing, reader. Priscilla
Sneff writes with the authority and commanding depth of second sight,
haunted, experienced, and revisionary. These artful but heart-deep
invitations are “searching, so researched,” yet finally
they await—perhaps they must always await—the simple
clarity of a single lover’s dream: “So you, too, shall
come to me, artlessly.”

 

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter