Spiraling to the Point: Sally Keith’s The Fact of the Matter

Ben Purkert

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2012. 63 pages. $16.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

The phrase “the fact of the matter” implies instant distillation. Sally Keith’s poems are more discursive than that but no less concentrated in their intent. Part-epic, part-elegy, her latest collection presents “one world spun into another”: a wonderfully involuted tableau where ancient Greek myth, German painting, strip malls, and natural history swirl together with the speaker’s mourning. She sets these varied tropes into orbit to represent—faithfully, one feels—a mind in motion, reeling through a time of tremendous grief. By deftly stacking each new line of thought against the next, The Fact of the Matter achieves a rhetoric of wrenching juxtaposition, illuminating the complex forces that the past—both distant and near—exerts on one’s present.

Weighing most heavily on these poems is the all-consuming pain of loss: the recent passing of the poet’s mother coupled with the dissolution of a marriage. Keith at times addresses these struggles through plainspoken confession: “My marriage would be an error. / Everybody knew. Still we passed the time with wondering // into how many shapes a body could go.” But rehashing the divorce seems like a tired exercise; apparently “everybody knew” anyway. This is not to say the speaker has moved on. On the contrary, she finds herself imprisoned within lingering sorrow yet nevertheless resolves to produce art out of her confinement: “I’ll paint this wall a mural to remind us of the past. // For rest: one small cot. / For fourteen hours a day: just green.” Keith’s diction reinforces the harshness of grief, in particular the stark conditions the grieving artist must endure. In this way, Keith’s work serves as ars poetica, detailing the strain of its making. Of course, these poems also look outward. With brush in hand, Keith recalls both her speaker’s “past” along with the larger tradition of elegy rooted in antiquity.

Invoking the classics is a poetic gesture as old as the classics; Keith makes it new, in part, by proposing simultaneity: “If somewhere Achilles is soaking in the still hot Mediterranean sun, / elsewhere I study the pieces of a painting.” In these two lines, the millennia separating speaker and mythical Achilles vanish; both figures appear in the present tense. Their depiction offers a stark contrast: whereas Achilles is shown outdoors in glowing sensory terms, the speaker is found “elsewhere” before some crumbled artifact. One looms large as myth, the other is left to clean up afterwards. Still, their shared mourning unites them. The same poem begins, “One conversation is contained in the room.” Each stanza, or room, in Keith’s work stages a dialogue between disparate objects, evidencing just how far grief, with a kind of gravitational pull, might stretch to bring them together. In the spirit of Whitman (“It avails not, time nor place”), Keith’s poems skillfully integrate far-flung narratives into their own contemporary tale of loss; in so doing, the book broadens its scope while acutely reflecting the scattered attentions of a pained mind.

Because The Fact of the Matter toggles so quickly between frames of reference, a reader may struggle at times to find her bearings. The poetry that emerges from this dislocation conveys breathless possibility mixed with dark humor: “A yellow bird is dead in the fresh oil slick. / I just thought somehow we would keep in touch.” The “we” most logically refers to the speaker’s relationship with her deceased mother or departed lover; the bird’s appearance has simply called to mind this prior grief. And yet this “yellow bird” is not merely metaphor; it is itself a “fresh” loss and will never again “keep in touch” through song. Keith routinely makes such exhilarating leaps, establishing an intriguing music in the process. “I could not make him come to me. A dozen times / the fresco dried before I made the face, the face [ . . . ] On the silky grass behind the yard-wide cattail strip / while swallows dart, while the same heron keeps bending its knee . . . ” Keith’s poems often launch into an iambic mode and then slacken into something more prose-like and expository; indeed, her voice spans many different registers, all in the effort to “hold the thinking self intact,” to avoid cracking.

This question of remaining whole comes to the fore when Keith writes about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a 1,500 foot-long earthwork constructed from basalt stone in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The speaker observes the awe-inspiring sculpture and ponders its interwoven mandalas: “What kind of walls are there, holding together / the parts of the heart? How many spirals / hide inside the brain as we know it wider than / the sky?” For Keith, the heart is a tender, walled thing, bound to itself; the mind, by contrast, remains boundless, ever reaching for new frontiers, as suggested by the italicized phrase from Dickinson. Thus, the imagination may triumph where emotion falls short, for the brain can see beyond barriers. (“Revelation has no dimensions,” reads the book’s epigraph, a quote from Smithson). In Smithson’s signature spiral, The Fact of the Matter locates an important trope: that the mind endures as an expansive force, even during profound heartbreak.

Representing grief is no straightforward affair; as Peter Sacks reminds us, the elegy must “make the absent present.” Keith’s poetry succeeds in large measure because it admits the complexity of its undertaking. When it comes to mourning, there simply is “no good math for finding a middle”—the experience is fully disorienting; it spins one around. One’s consciousness may spiral into a cycle of self-reproach. “I would have called,” one poem confesses. “I cannot stop myself from thinking this.” But though grief may consume one’s thoughts, it cannot limit the extent of the mind’s reach. This is the work of Keith’s poetry: harnessing the mind’s centrifugal forces for creative ends, to push onward towards the “outermost edge of the burning, burning sun.”

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