New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2010. 80 pages. $18.00.
Joanna Klink’s Raptus begins with an epigraph from Charles Olson that reads like a preemptive admonishment: “Love the World—and stay inside it.” Yet, from the first lines, Klink’s speaker is practicing letting go. In “Some Feel Rain,” the first poem of the collection, she lists the sensations of others, suggesting her own distance from these. Even the voice here is the remote second person—a speaker detached from her own ability to name the world. The last lines of the poem directly refute Olson, setting us up for a struggle to come:
Some feel the rivers shift, blue veins
through soil, as if the smoke-stacks were a long gray
dream of exhalation. The lynx lets its paws
skim the ground in snow and showers.
The wildflowers scatter in warm tints until
the second they are plucked. You can wait
to scrape the ankle-burrs, you can wait until Mercury
the early star underdraws the night and its blackest
districts. And wonder. Why others feel
through coal-thick night that deeply colored garnet
star. Why sparring and pins are all you have.
Why the earth cannot make its way toward you.
“Let go,” Klink says, again and again. These words become a refrain for the book, which is a lyric catalogue of observation and emotion (or emotional emptiness), a riff on Elizabeth Bishop’s “art of losing.” Klink’s project, in large part, seems to be the attempt to describe a vacuum, to give the space of nothingness its own locale.
Raptus is a book about grieving, about loss and subsequent aloneness and detachment, and the distance between thought and physicality. Klink sorts through the objects that make up a life and considers them through the lens of grief, a stark gray canvas that tends to bring them into relief. Her clarity of vision and recall document a life and a relationship by its ephemera and remaining debris. From “Sorting”:
mountain ash years without cigarettes
heaps of sweaters dishes
the fire in the kitchen the purple
kitchen. The absurd red car your mother gave us
the books we wrote sentences we took out
pencil in the margins your shrinking
penmanship new shoes
your smile the one that seizes at what’s
real. The laundry the prosody. The refusals
the constant generosities every desperate apology.
You have to hold it in mind all at once.
The recurrent imagery of the book: houses, neighborhood, household objects, weather, and seasonal changes in the natural environment, make clear its narrative understory: a failed domestic relationship. In this material, Klink joins a long tradition of poets—I think of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Eros Turannos,” Robert Hass’s Sun Under Wood, and much of Louise Glück’s work in particular. But Klink is more interested than these three (and most others) in taking her reader into the process of grief with her, documenting its stages from within. On one hand, the sense of organic experience is made central, and in its best moments is riveting. On the other hand, Klink does not have the ability from this vantage point to gain or provide perspective on the experience. Glück’s famous cynicism allows her a hard-shelled remove, a perspective from which to look at (or perhaps look down upon) her speaker’s own situation. For example, consider these opening lines from the poem “Condo” in Vita Nova, a book occupying the months after a divorce:
I lived in a tree. The dream specified
pine, as though it thought I needed
prompting to keep mourning. I hate
when your own dreams treat you as stupid.
Glück allows in a complex spectrum of emotion through Vita Nova and even within many individual poems—from anger to impatience to desperation to humor—offering the occasional reprieve from grief. Klink, in contrast, is relentless in her excavation of loss and sorrow, and ultimately the effect of such emotional focus in a book is the blurring of some of its constituent poems.
As a single unified project, however, the book reads like an extended meditation, one keenly attuned to the facets of human feeling and cohabitation. Klink does set out to perform a “carrying-off by force” or “fit of intense emotion,” as the title, Raptus, defined at the beginning of the book, makes evident. In that project, she is quite successful.
As anyone who has experienced such intensity of feeling knows, the natural world feels bound up in—indeed seems to respond to—our emotional state. In the title poem, “Raptus,” Klink says “I shut down the fields in my arms,” suggesting a power to control nature simply by thought. Later, in “Wonder of Birds,” an extended lyric, she muses,
I didn’t think the world desired us.
I never thought that when winter ends in February
the seasons might be lying.
The world responds or acts its own way despite the rapture of the speaker. More bluntly, the seasons parallel the blossoming and death of a relationship. Her anthropomorphism might be perceived as heavy-handed, or even facile, if it weren’t disarmed by the genuine quality of surprise and frustration in the speaker. It doesn’t feel like a metaphor being employed, in other words, but a narration of the initial feeling of correspondence that the speaker has—one which she then questions and sometimes rejects.
Klink’s best uses of the natural environment, however, are those where her outward gaze allows greater perspective or the sudden swerve inward—enacting the mind’s response to the world, instead of vice versa. Later in the same poem she interrupts herself to say: “look—a bird is filling with light” (“Wonder of Birds”).
Such moments of wonder and strangeness—wonderful strangeness—buoy the book, let it charm us with its insights and quirks, and make the narrator’s transformation believable by showing her in the act of observing and thinking through. In the multi-part poem, “My Enemy,” Klink ends each section with simple declaratives—pronouncements on the specific relationship being described, and on relationships in general. “The way you hold something in you matters,” she says. I believe her in this assertion, which could stand as an argument for the book: the way we see the world, the way we process it and keep hold of our understandings—more than any set of objects or external connections—makes up who we are.
So perhaps Klink doesn’t disagree with Olson after all; or perhaps she would argue that his admonition should be inverted: Love the World—and keep it inside you.