Oakland, CA: Omnidawn, 2015. 104 pages. $17.95
About Emily Dickinson, James Longenbach has written, “Her poems are so strange, so shockingly themselves, that no fully programmatic account of them could ever be mustered.” The same might be said of the poems in Margaret Ross’s debut collection, A Timeshare, winner of the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Book Contest. Because Ross’s poems are so strange—syntactically complicated, loosely tethered to ever-shifting lines of discourse, and full of unexpected leaps—they are as difficult to describe in precise terms as they initially are to read. These poems resist definition and categorization, and an uninitiated reader should be forgiven for feeling at sea when first encountering them. A Timeshare requires our total attention, over the course of multiple reads, if we are to appreciate it.
Given the elusiveness of these poems, it may be helpful first to describe what we see on the page. With a few exceptions, the poems in A Timeshare are organized into heavily enjambed, regular stanzas—a superficial order that is in constant tension with unpredictable leaps through time and space. Discussing the forms her poems take, Ross has said, “Writing, I was interested in the regular stanza as a mimesis of clock time . . . I know stanza means ‘room,’ but I think of it as ‘minute’ . . . I can’t choose how long my minutes are, but I can try to choose how I fill them.” As its title suggests, A Timeshare is characterized in part by an acute anxiety about the passage of time. The book’s first sentence is “Countdown,” and other poems similarly begin with temporal references: “Five o’clock again”; “Summer here tips everything off”; “Did the time change?” Early in the title poem, the speaker attempts to comfort herself, wondering, “if there’s such a thing as time at all I never saw it / move and if that’s so then what am I / afraid of?”
Despite these efforts, a sense of dread permeates the collection. However, as in the poetry of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, this dreadfulness is tempered by Ross’s linguistic playfulness and tendency toward wry observation. These lighter moments are often the result of off-kilter phrasing and syntax. In “Little Prairie,” “It was a small hour” signifies early morning; “Dissolution” describes the “stamped-flat / ancient gum somebody’s mouth had worked / the pink from” on a subway platform; “Decorum” opens with a delightful redundancy: “I saw again today the one who / sells shares. I said a pretty day / for walking in the park where it was day.” When removed from their context, these instances of eccentricity are relatively easy to parse; in the midst of long poems that consist largely of unconventional phrasing and syntax, they are much more difficult to decipher.
Like all good poetry, however, Ross’s poems teach us how to read themselves. One aid to our comprehension is that most of the poems are anchored to recognizable places: a laboratory, an apartment, a chapel, a nursing home. Often a poem begins with a description of this space, allowing us to become absorbed in a physical reality before Ross’s mind takes off. The title poem exemplifies this movement; it begins
Five o’clock in the rented living
room. Nothing wrong. Heliotrope continuing
to fade into upholstery. Buttons pressing back
against the back of the couch make the surface
cave, just decorative, faint garden stamped
on a cotton throw. And that the world. Yes no.
This is “merely” a description of a couch and a blanket. But Ross’s attention to detail and her deft syntax—which throughout A Timeshare runs the gamut from one-word fragments to run-ons abandoned mid-phrase to mammoth sentences stretched to their limit over multiple stanzas—immediately imbues this apparently mundane room with an uneasiness as it is experienced by a restless mind.
“A Timeshare” then uses the apartment as a launch pad for flights into surreal descriptions, philosophical interrogations, and meditations on the self. One subject is introduced, apparently abandoned, then turns up several stanzas later. We can think of these poems as being loosely structured with an “A, B, C, A, B, C” pattern, in which lines of discourse compete for center stage, as if the mind at work on the page cannot confine itself to a single subject. Part of our delight in reading these poems results from our learned ability to remember and recognize these various strands of thought when they recur.
Ross is a relentlessly curious poet, and many of these poems are loosely organized around initial questions: “Dim presence, where do we belong?”; “What things are vapor?”; “Did the time change? Did little / savings of the day glint on blades / wind tilted towards the illuminated / capital?” Elsewhere, again in the title poem, the speaker rebukes herself for romanticizing experience:
Q: What are you
doing down there in the
there in the meantime? X: “All day
I am an orchard at midday when the stunned air
pauses, bronze and stupid, terse with flies. Don’t lie. I’m
in the living room.
Many of the poems in A Timeshare contain similarly italicized passages of unattributed “other voices” that intrude on the discourse. Some of these instances can be read as the poet—or versions of the poet—conversing with herself. In others, the italicized voice seems to emanate from the past, the future, or an alternate-reality of the present. These polyphonies not only suggest the speaker’s resistance to being time-bound; they also illustrate Ross’s skepticism about the notion of a unified self. In “Age Control Concentrate™” the speaker suddenly declares, “Hunch the self is // many-personed sequence, every / day I woke inside another stranger’s / shape and dressed it in the same // red sweater.” Later in the same poem, we find one of the book’s most vulnerable moments: “Is there no method // to flush out the self that wants / the others gone?” That no explicit answer is given seems an answer in itself, and this is not the only moment in which Ross suggests that the pursuit of answers—and the grasping for feeling-at-home-in-the-world—may be futile. Indeed, A Timeshare ends on a note of frustration: “I can describe / inertia, I have been there, it looks / the same as here, the street / convincingly painted onto glass as if you could go.”
For all of Ross’s syntactical adroitness, the combination of complex sentences and heavily enjambed stanzas occasionally results in a lack of immediate grammatical clarity that often is amplified by the omission of articles and conjunctions. But if this confusion can momentarily pull us out of the poems, it also ensures that we give them our full attention. In fact, I cannot remember reading a book of poetry that demanded from me such active participation. And yet one senses no neediness in A Timeshare. Indeed, I find myself compelled to return to it again and again in large part because Ross does not seem to care whether I do or not.
Many contemporary poems confuse affected strangeness with genuine idiosyncrasy; they conceal an absence of vision behind a veil of impenetrability. But the strangeness of Ross’s poems is the result of truly original thought and feeling: we never sense that the poetry’s difficulty is anything more than the natural expression of a particular mind seeking answers to essential questions in as many places as it possibly can. The result is a remarkable debut, one that rewards rereadings and promises many exciting poems to come.