Operations of Mind: Sarah Gridley’s Green is the Orator, John Cross’s Staring at the Animal, and Lance Phillips’s These Indicium Tales

Jay Thompson

Green is the Orator. Sarah Gridley. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010. 104 pp. $19.95.

The word for Green is the Orator, Sarah Gridley’s second book of poems, is not collection, but miscellany—a word that catches the baroque, eighteenth-century-like flair of her language, her curiosity about nature and the spirit. There’s a dioramic hardness to her imagery that recalls Wallace Stevens (the source of her title). But Gridley is free of Stevens’ need to stretch landscape across theory; instead, it’s the particulars of the natural world that she’s drawn to. Listen: “Distinctly / out of sync, the double rapping of the carpenter frog, mating knock / of the hummock, its earth-swallowed packets, its gists of pollen / in the peat’s dark core.”

Over the length of Green is the Orator, Gridley establishes an eyes-open, hands-out empiricism, which feels eighteenth-century in its own way, recalling the world of naturalists in the time before Darwin’s great unifying theory, when a beautiful sketch sufficed to describe the unheard-of specimen. From “Sunrise with Sea Monsters”:

In bulletins of spray to sky, a morning forgets a million yellows.
Stroke of yellow into grainy noun, now a light quarried from yellow.

What is your face on the face of the water? A mirror conceals
it begins in stone. Noun of informing and resuming yellow.

Gridley’s subject is transformation. The poems in Orator sometimes catch the moment when a thing turns from being a force or emblem back into a simple instance, “when the crest thins the wave / to outstretched liquid.” Other times, her images change the opposite way, from instance to eerie symbol, halfway through being seen: “Fountains like luck are lucid // and strange. Or climbing the air / in postures of power.”

In both cases, the reader catches Gridley’s spiritual sensibility: in these poems, transformation happens at a peak. This elevation of temperament, and the worked elegance of her poems, mean that Gridley’s occasional outbursts—of pleasure, rough sorrow, or longing—startle even more by contrast, seizing the reader’s attention. In “Acousmatic,” the speaker voices the wish to

hear in wind a single,
soothing thing,

or hear of wind a kindred displacement—
in our skins to the added

subtractions we live in, sun over sand, the coppered hem-
wetness, sun in tons of bells, in apples cut open

to disappear . . .

It’s an irony of Gridley’s book that this unveiling coincides with disappearance. Orator’s speech springs from revelation and desire, but its heart is in its observational exactness and reticence.

Staring at the Animal. John Cross. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2009. 30 pp. $9.95.

While Gridley’s speakers long to vanish at their moment of clearest expression, John Cross, in his new chapbook Staring at the Animal, speaks from many places at once. Sometimes his speaker’s expression is personal, pressurized and joyful: “I fall asleep, past roots and all, to sounds, which drag // my little streams puff & shiver / cover me, my spinner’s bird.” Other language in the book feels bare, chiseled out of stone: “you spangly nail studded [missing] black hangar / awned plangent drift / the disassembling glitters.” Some of his “Antigone” sequence presents itself as found flakes of a mostly-lost papyrus: “yelps of red-tight syllables. [ . . . tell-tales.] this is home.”

But Cross’ work, for all its diversity of speech, doesn’t come across as scatterbrained; it simply sounds vital. The voice of Staring at the Animal (the sixth chapbook in Tupelo Press’ Snowbound series, and Cross’ first collection) is modest and curious. One poem, “Field Book,” is a spacey, touch-absorbed California plant guide; in another poem, the awoken speaker prowls his strangely animate house while his addressee lies sleeping. Cross’ lexicon is big, Continental-feeling (torsion, petiole, ceruse), and barely controlled, as if words asserted themselves over the speaker just as history does, or the sun and moon.

Consciousness “loves itself,” George Oppen once wrote. In Staring at the Animal, the enchanting process of mind runs together forces and time, leaving the reader wondering whether the “good sun” of the book’s first poem stands for disciplined sight or for a unifying glow over which sight can play:

a good sun  feels for the saltwater of its handkerchief
                   for the peacock of its bonfire
                   the line where her lips meet

If, in Cross’ work, it can be hard to tell where vision begins and action ends, the reader is still at home in the middle of his mind’s quiet thrill. In the end of the poem “thinly under,” we move over abrupt breaks in language, from sight, to action, to rest:

hearing long past orange trees & street maps
the flesh as augury & all we swiftly—

pulse. thinly under skin & star
—blue night (put there by) ( )

as if a bird were held

These Indicium Tales. Lance Phillips. Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2010. 112 pp. $17.50.

How do we prove that our minds exist out in the world? Emerson wrote that “thought only appears in the objects it classifies”; a century of the art of compression, abstraction, and collage suggests that thought can appear, too, in the objects it conjoins. At one point in These Indicium Tales, Lance Phillips writes,

The skull is like this: *are we all alright* + heirloom rose

—a line which puts the inherited world and its questions right back in our heads. Phillips’ poetry is nearsighted and hungry to mingle, collapse backward, perform. The book’s recurring images—nipple, wasp, daffodil, cardinal, stream of urine—seem to hover right in front of the poet’s nose, provoking questions that pop in and then vanish: “Does one make a body by refusing all else.” Written in sparse, open sequences, the poems of These Indicium Tales foreshorten perception. As they do, they suggest an active, undistracted sort of thought:

Knuckle come off cardinal against the brick

Names one cannot help converting to a physical pressures: Lodged finger

Botch heel of one’s hand one has descriptive notation Botch wasp Flames

The book is a splendid example of form containing argument. Phillips carefully scores his white space and capitalization to keep up a tense dance among his images: “One armAs a matter of dissonanceThe pansies’ purplish one wearies ofSent looking.” The things of the world want, above all, to be closer. “Intensely held thought amid fingers engulfing apple.”

The book is full of sex and acts of intimate seeing, but never seems to strain; after all, in Phillips’s poetry things are renewed by association. In the poem “One Loses One’s Power of Resistance Against Stimuli,” the speaker overwhelms us with images while destroying any intellectual means toward understanding he can get his hands on (symbol, embodiment, description, analogy). Then he concludes, in a sated daze, “One destroys—transformation is all around the air.”

Whereas Gridley’s speakers reveal the world only to vanish in sight, and Cross’ run together the active and passive operations of mind, Phillips creates an environment without invisibility, without passivity, and without rest. The fragmentary language and open forms conceal an intensity at the center of Tales; in these poems the reader is surrounded, and in fact imbued, by hunger, eruption, change.

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