Sarah C. Harwell
Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 2010. 96 pages. $16.95.
In her second book, The Eternal City (2010 National Book Award Finalist), Kathleen Graber has written poems that acknowledge the existence of a fragmented world through quick cuts and unexpected associations, yet go beyond Eliot’s charge to “shore up” these fragments against the ruins. She attempts to build a web of relationships that cohere, if momentarily:
What I know of conversion
I learned while cleaning the sticky shelves of the icebox,
a glass sheet exploding as one end hit the sink’s hot suds.
For a single moment, as fissures crackled along the body,
I held something both whole & wholly shattered,
then, form gave way, it broke a second time, & was gone.
Her poems illuminate experience as “both whole & wholly shattered.” To represent this version of experience, her associations have the measured linearity of rational thought, a quality that gives the poems a new old-fashioned feel: “I spent every day smashing dishes with one of my uncle’s hammers / & gluing them back together in new ways. It was strange work, / & dangerous, even though I tried to protect myself—”
The Eternal City reveals (and revels in) the connections between thinking and thought’s uneasy bedmate, feeling. References to St. Augustine, Kant, Walter Benjamin and Bellini are juxtaposed against day-to-day activities, family deaths, train rides, closets, and neighbors: the absurdities and bittersweet qualities of a small life. Philosophical and yet overtly personal, Graber turns to and argues with much of philosophy’s received wisdom as she makes sense of the contradictions of a lived life by making music of looking at the world closely—what Seamus Heaney in his poem “Song” calls “the music of what happens.” Her poems have a welcoming intelligence and rigorous compassion derived from the yoking together of these two disparate impulses; the poems feel like complex, adult versions of talks you had in college—poems that couple fear, anxiety and loneliness with deeply serious and felt philosophical reading.
In fact, the poet devotes an entire section of the book to a sequence based on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (as mediated through a Brodsky essay). These poems set Aurelius’s impulse for good governance against the various small revelations and outrages of modern life. The reader glimpses the death of Graber’s mother, a fire, a cottage house, a new nephew, and the detritus of objects such as an exhausted emery board and a pocked marble. Like a mosaic created from smashed dinner plates, these slivers are embedded in (and sometimes work against) Aurelius’s moral observations. At one point the child of an addict is left in the speaker’s beach shop: “We discussed / puppets & how much he likes the big blocks at school. / We considered how slowly time seems to pass when you’re waiting.” An epigraph from Aurelius sets this restrained scene in motion “ . . . seeing what ought to be done; for this is not effected by our eyes, but by another kind of vision.” These are not poems of the hero, or of the sensualist, but of the thinker who moves through life with a double awareness: yes, this is a sad situation, and yes, we can muse about perception both as a relief from the sadness and as an amplification of it.
Graber’s long lines give her room to work out her complicated and restless thoughts. In her poem “The Drunkenness of Noah” she states “Even in our silence, / we are told, we carry the Word. This morning in the shower, / I looked down & saw my mother’s bare body asleep in mine.” The shifts in her poem (from a friend’s drunken father to Bellini’s oil painting of Noah, from her mother’s mental illness to Tristan Bernard) juxtapose abstract statements such as “we carry the Word” with personal details such as “mother’s bare body.” This mixture is meant to rebuild what has been shattered by death, memory, and pain, and the domestic scenes function as imagistic amplifications to the more abstract ways of thinking. Graber often interweaves binaries: collage and narrative, thinking and feeling, death and life, philosophy and feeling, associative logic and linear logic. She doesn’t place these binaries in opposing camps; instead she illuminates the tender relationship between them, how much they need each other to exist. This acknowledged fragmentation of human experience is placed against a tentative sense of cohesion that stems from brokenness, complexities, and disappointments.
Graber longs for solidity, but she is too aware of transience to be comfortable in illusory stability. The book’s final poem asserts the simultaneous desire to assign meaning and to admit ignorance, even as Graber is skeptical of what she knows and doesn’t know.
It holds its magnificence close
to its sides. And whatever this resembles—
shyness or restraint, a greediness even—it is not.
She does not force conclusions or obscure willfully. She is patient in the paradoxical stance of standing firmly in the shifting mysteries of existence. She does not shrug off the difficulties of sense-making by jumbling syntax, straining for “original language,” or relying on the individual reader’s web of associations for meaning. Her connective abilities and intelligence acknowledge that despite the difficulties of communication and the essential brokenness of what we’re given, we can make something from it, something like sense.
Most days now I get up late
& brew coffee & the smell rises from the old enamel pot
I’ve had to balance under the dark drip ever since the carafe
that came with the machine shattered in the dishwasher last month.
Graber acknowledges the shattered world in the broken carafe, yet skillfully utilizes the connective glue of syntax, long lines, and rational thought to turn our attention to a new whole. Painstakingly balanced under the drip, Graber’s old enamel pot pours for us, in its lovely, intelligent way, poems that are sustaining and necessary—like coffee, like thoughtful reading, like connection in a fragmented, ruinous world.