≡ Menu

Sarah Eggers

In Caroline Knox’s nimble new collection Flemish, a poem entitled simply “They” begins: “They live in a mobile home/made of Adobe Caslon.” The elided antecedent here could very well be Knox’s poems; while maintaining a healthy awareness of themselves as constructed objects (“black and white graphic art,” Knox has called them), they simultaneously feel in constant, and deliriously unpredictable, motion. Vehicles, metaphoric, historical, or embroidered on pillows, abound in these poems. In “Harley Lyric”, Knox has somehow managed, with her characteristic wit, to conflate a medieval manuscript of miscellanea and the eponymous “chopper”—and with a tonal palette at once brassy and arcane. There is something playful, almost giddy, in these poems—they create the sense of setting out on a road trip, purposeless and hopeful.

Flemish is Caroline Knox’s 8th poetry collection, her third from the excellent Wave Books. This year, six of her poems were included in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry edited by Paul Hoover, the occasion of whose publication was recently celebrated by an epic reading by Knox and twenty three other of the most exciting poets in American letters at the New School in New York City. Although a span of continent kept me from being able to attend, the wonders of electronic mail and Caroline Knox’s generosity of spirit allowed me the privilege of a vivacious dialogue with the poet, the transcript of which follows.

SE: I want to mention first of all that Flemish is a physically beautiful object. I am fairly sure you didn’t design it, but whoever did seems to have gotten something of the spirit of the poems into the physicality of the book itself. The idea of the book, or the text, as an object, does this make sense to you in the way you think about and make poems?


photoCK
: Wave Books is adamant that their books be beautiful, and I’m so glad they are. Wave’s are all done by Quemadura, who is one poet named Jeff Clark, from Ypsilanti. The speckled white cover is recycled material, and the focus is modernistic typography. I was invited to choose end papers for Flemish (strawberry). (But I do like very much Wave’s emphasis on doing a great deal of its work online, on its website and in social media, even though it publishes hold-in-your-hand books, not ebooks. This is in tune with the excellent goal of parity between print and online works.)

My great aunt was a college librarian, and I spent a lot of time with her when I was in school. She was connected with the Arts and Crafts movement, with book designers and typographers, so I got a good look at all that thinking and making. And a respect for it.

 

SE: I was excited to come upon Francis Ponge’s cameo in “Stove Seasoning”–you call him, aptly, “an advocate for things”. He is one of my favorite poets, and rarely does he get much mention. I would guess that you are also an “advocate for things”, but the relationship you engender to the “objectified” is much more complex, I think, more nuanced. I think of Ponge as something like a lepidopterist, pinning the objects down with words.; whereas, in your poems, the words seems to hover about the objects, or the other way around. It’s like a dance. So can you talk a little about how objects make their way into your poems, and what you do with them there?

 

CK: Ponge’s thing poems seem like short art history essays defining the thing. He is like a lepidopterist. Maybe I’d try to approach the thing from a lot of angles, trying to obey Stevens: Constantly see the world in a new way, and It Must Change. (So style is what changes it, if you can get the right style.) I’d like not to be bound by any diction level or syntax while I wrote about the object, so that my poems about objects or about anything else, could try to have a changing and changeable kind of beauty, changeant.

In “He Paves the Road with Iron Bars,” (Verse Press) I was trying to do something like this. We think of Emerson as singlehandedly inventing a new philosophy rising above the material. But he loved stuff, and was enchanted by the railroad. (It has such great shop talk.) I love Emerson, who changed the language with the marmoreal paragraphs, but also, oh, the material world! And I think the language of jobs is so interesting as a lexical source for poems. Maybe especially if you don’t know the mysteries of other people’s jobs.

 

SE: Something that struck me in many of the poems in Flemish was the juxtaposition of the long-lived, if not to say eternal, and the ephemeral–a Carrara marble font full of construction paper fish, a mobile home made of Adobe Caslon. Your poems often have this quality of being at once solid, etched, and as slippery as one of the sloe-eyed dolphins in “Subjects”. How does time figure into your poems, and into your use of language?

 

CK: I thought in my youth that I would become a medievalist (which didn’t happen), so I was drawn early to languages then taught – French, Latin, Old English – so I keep (fragments of) these in my head. I don’t see why they shouldn’t show up in poems occasionally to give some sense and some beautiful or at least interesting sound.

I feel drawn to switches in diction levels and in syntax, no matter what the poem subject. It feels inclusive. I think I learned this from Auden, and from the New York Poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Stevens and Ashbery often appear to qualify or as some say “cancel” their statements. I think that’s hugely interesting, and the switches can make it happen. Valley Girl talk might be another good lexical source. My son-in-law’s aviation magazines are, too – “docile stall characteristics/ and retrofit fuselage utilizing/ a semi-monocoque construction” (“Who’ll Buy,” Quaker Guns).

SE: Speaking of Auden, in an essay you wrote about how he has influenced your work, you describe his syntax as sounding almost as if it were English in translation. Even better, you described it as “slightly cracked”. This phrase works perfectly with the poems in Flemish, and in your other books as well. The language is recognizable, but, yes, slightly cracked. Is this something that you are consciously pursuing in the act of writing, this feeling of translation?

CK: First, I want to point out that in the section of the essay “2. Syntax” that I’m talking here just about the poem “1929.” I don’t think that Auden did this kind of “crackedness” or distortion often. I think he was experimenting with it, enjoying it probably, in this investigative poem. The crackedness suits the theme of exploration and discovery. The crackedness or translatedness helps deliver the anxiety!

And I definitely feel influenced by Auden’s experiment – to distort the language slightly, making it as you say recognizable but slightly cracked. (No one would want to do this ALL the time – it would be mannered and boring.) Yes, as you say, I do want to make my poems in Flemish as elsewhere sound slightly translated from Eng to Eng – a lot of the time but not all the time.

 

SE: In “He Lives in Bayonne”, “he” emails a blank screen; in response, “she” emails him her trash icon. These lines are very funny, and that is at least partly because they communicate something that we somehow understand, and yet it is in a language in which we are not quite fluent yet. Can you talk about how things like the Internet and texting, which are certainly altering not just our language but even, so they say, our brains, have changed your writing?

CK: I admire so much a book by Janet Holmes called f2f –it is ALL in texting, how charming, what a tour-de-force. Language certainly will gradually absorb the new technology, won’t it? It certainly has begun to.

I guess that collecting fragments – words and phrases – has a whole lot to do with method (I suppose all writers do this). It’s inductive.

One more point about the New York Poets – I think their interaction with abstract painters and painting made me want to situate on the page a lot of elements that don’t necessarily belong together, but might complement or clash with one another – this goes along with picking words and phrases that don’t belong together. The surface of the poem should offer a lot of interesting elements. It has to be done without sounding showoffy or bathetic.

SE: In the Auden essay you liken the speaker in one of your poems to a pilgrim. I loved this idea–because often the poems seem like pilgrimages through the landscape of our shared language. Does the speaker come out of the language for you, or does the language arise out of a certain stance that the speaker has adopted towards the material? Or some of both?

CK: I was talking about a sort of pilgrim narrator in “Souvenir de Roc-Amadour” because pilgrims do go there, and because I was writing a poem – since poets are always pilgrims during the writing process of the poem, wondering whether it’s going to pan out into anything, or into something you can put your name to.

The speaker in any poem has to come out of the language, and also the language comes out of the speaker – both of these, just as you say. Isn’t it a balancing act; you have to do both at once, and remember what you’re doing. It’s dangerous and exciting and you don’t want to wreck something good that’s half done. The speaker has to change all the time! In “Boiled Snow,” the person who says, “A distinctive new gelato” is not the same kid who says “Flavor of the Month for March!”

 

SE: Something I have noted before about all of your poems, and these new ones perhaps even more, is that they are completely unpredictable–there is simply no telling where a poem will end up from first line to last, and every move in between surprises. You have a startling array of nouns at your disposal, and do wonderfully unexpected things with prepositions, not to mention pronouns. But there are, it turns out, far fewer verbs than one would expect in such dynamic poems. I have often felt that English was a language somewhat deficient in the verb department…can you shed some light on how you create movement in your poems, what propels them forward?

 

CK: I don’t know where the poems are going myself.

As well as the New York Poets, Marianne Moore often does not come back to her beginnings, to a subject or a statement. I always liked that; it’s daring.

Examples from two poems from Flemish: in a poem called “Key,” I wrote, “You can knit direct from a photograph, it’s like an atlas.” The directions are supposed to help, but they didn’t – and then the photo made everything instantly clear! Who could have predicted this?

Comedy rests on unpredictability; we expect x, but we get y. Our expectations are upset, and we burst out laughing; that’s the recipe for comedy, isn’t it? So if you can choose the right x and y, you give delight, or puzzlement, or slight awe. In “Harley Lyric,” I was so stunned by these two facts: 1. BL Harley MS 2253 = a collection of top-drawer love lyrics, 14th-15thc. 2. Harley motorcycle. The ms. ref. sounds like a motorcycle model! The first lines of the poems sound like biker songs! Koch said of his and Ashbery’s and O’Hara’s work, “We didn’t see any reason to avoid humor.”

Another example: it may be funny to put your dogs’ names, “Wuffy” and “Chips,” in double quotes – are the dogs really named Rex and Fido? But sometimes the unpredictable isn’t funny or important – it’s just believable. It doesn’t prove anything or lead to anything, so it must be there for its own sake, and the moment fulfills itself. In my book Nine Worthies, somebody’s little brother tells at some length to a room full of grownups all about shad and shad roe and shadbush. The people sit and listen. That’s all there is to it.

You can also plan the appearance of unpredictability. Right now I’m writing a sestina which tries to obscure the fact that it is one, though a lot of internal rhyme and other distractions.

 

SE: It seems that form allows you to make poetry out of the material of the everyday—not “poeticized” but direct—the language simply lifted directly from the vernacular but “lifted into art” through the form in which it might be re-experienced. Can you say a bit about your use of forms, especially traditional ones, in Flemish?

 

CK: The traditional forms I use in Flemish are (upon reflection) these: tercets, libretto (including a sonnet of sorts), (short) prose poems, song. I don’t obey the forms very strictly. To use a form, with all its expectations, creates a place to upset those expectations, usually only slightly.

Tercets seem comfortable for the writer to ease into; they have a leisurely and even meditative feel and look, I think. In Flemish there turned out to be four poems in tercets: “He Was a Chartist.” “Stove Seasoning,” “They,” and “The Font.” (I’d like to be able to do such a poem that went on for pages.) The small and regular-looking stanzas allow you to put in some surprise material for contrast. The stanzas look like strung beads, and maybe act like them.

Cantata libretto: I adapted the libretto (by Picander) of Bach’s Coffee Cantata very, very loosely. It was a game and a dream at the same time. I wanted it to be too short, and it was. I wanted it to be full of notes of today – the wedding nonsense, the Starbucks nonsense, the poetry reading of opaque work.

Short prose poem: “Key” and “The Scottish Play” seem to be nuggets of wisdom, definitive blocks on their subjects – but they really don’t do the reader any good! They’re probably just an excuse for playing with language, a valuable activity in itself. “The Scottish play” is a nickname for Macbeth, but using it as a title turns out to be thoroughly pretentious, and nothing to do with the poem, really, just a way into it.

About “Key” – The bold face section of “Key” is one of Poor Richard’s sayings, one of Franklin’s “scriptures,” made into the shape of a key. Quemadura graciously spent a lot of time on typesetting this! The proverb is hidden in plain sight. But there’s no key to “Key.”

Song – “Aragon” seems to be an elegiac piece (a “fragment”?); when I wrote it I remember being very interested in sound, and in putting the French refrain in as a piece of folk poetry that someone else learned from someone else. (You can’t do this too much – it gets too adorably precious.) Maybe the speaker is a pilgrim – to Santiago da Campostela?

So, to sum up, I think one of the reasons to use any traditional form is to introduce surprise material into the form, surprise material that sits comfortably with the form’s other aspects.

To drink boiled snow

To drink boiled snow is good science.
It may affect the water table
to manufacture boiled snow on the rocks
218º Fahrenheit for however many minutes.

To skate on black ice is hard science
looking down through it to a broken and frozen rowboat
six feet under in Davy Jones’s Locker
in black tie in the middle of the night,

walking on thin ice, to skate on the
leading edge of thin ice, as abraded maple
leaves’ patterns trip you up.  To drink
unboiled sap as the deer do, clandestinely

out of sap buckets, starting on Birthington’s Washday;
to discover in frozen sap
a distinctive new gelato!  Flavor
of the Month for March!  To write

most of a poem out of
infinitive clauses, to discover
in brackish tidepools much too early
harbor seals in camouflage on the rocks,

and to marvel at these seals’ poise and grace
as they blunder diffidently into and under the ocean.

The Meaning Comes Close

All the cognates. This knowledge we’ve invented. Refracted by motion. Disguised as the
moon. Built of shells. All the stranger. And without a word for.

Materiality has a fulcrum. Where these narratives move. As functions of the wind.

_________________________________________________________
Sophie Sills‘ full length book of poetry, Elemental Perceptions: A Panorama was released from BlazeVOX Books in the winter of 2010. Her poems and literary criticism have appeared in various journals. She lives in Los Angeles and publishes the Peacock Online Review.










__________________________________________________________________
Phoebe Giannisi is a poet and architect. She works as an assistant professor at the University of Thessaly in Greece, where she teaches design and poetics related to urban space and landscape. She is interested in the performative and acoustic dimensions of poetry, and she organizes in situ poetic performances in public spaces. In 2010 she was co-curator for the Greek Pavilion of the 12th International Architecture Exhibition (La Biennale di Venezia). She is the author of several poetry collections including Loops (Nefeli Editions) and Homerica (Kedros Editions), as well as the chapbooks Sea Urchins and Ramazan. She has also published numerous books on Ancient Greek poetics and architecture. Read one of her chapbooks here.

The Scottish Play

The Scottish play the bagpipes with dignity to escort people from here to there.  You can read about this in Wee Gillis. An English teacher was teaching himself Finnish:  “Every morning my wife and daughters ask me, Have you finished your Finnish?”  Well, had he?  Finnan Haddie!  It’s an appealing idea, costumed musicians accompanying you wherever you go.  Bath is an antithesis of Scotland, fount vs. tarn.  Elsewhere, a mighty pinto was named Atlas not because he was strong (which he was), but because his markings described the Americas.  Suppose you are headed up the crags to visit this tarn.  In the US your car has bumpers; in the UK, guards.  Bumpers is defeatist, isn’t it?  As if you knew you’d crash.  This text could be set in Helvetica. ________________________________________________________ Caroline Knox‘s sixth book, Quaker Guns (Wave, 2008), received a Recommended Reading Award 2009 from the Massachusetts Center for the Book.  Her eighth book,Flemish, will appear in 2013.  She has recent work in A Public Space and Denver Quarterly.

Sad Indianapolis

I go to the movie theatre
to look at the rows of exit lights

just to feel like I’m landing in my life.

I tried to pull the world back
from the explosion;

but it is snowing;

the sky looks like
falling ash.

Each morning I stitch together
a moment, say,

the muted
light around a bowl of peaches,

but soon the junior
senator in me so timidly casts
his vote for desire

I can barely pour the milk.

Sad Indianapolis, famous
only for a race

that comes once a year,
the noise so loud it evacuates
the head briefly
and orderly

like a fire drill; then it all returns:

worries, regrets,
Yvonne, the hilltop, endless strip-
mall parking lots

where I would sit
as a teenager, the tongue
of the world on my battery,
and feel a huge, yet exact

emptiness, as if someone
were unfolding thousands of
little origami cranes in my chest.

This is a thankless town. You could burn
it and it would look better.

But still my heart
still wins, its penny slots

sometimes just walking
the neighborhood, admiring leaves:

How do I say this?

What I want is some ugly little
animal to be invented,
unloved, unnecessary

to represent
what can’t be

put back in order. To live in place
of where I live.

_____________________________________________________________
Frank Montesonti is the author of Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope (Barrow Street Press), and the chapbook A Civic Pageant (Black Lawrence Press, 2009). He has been published in literary journals such as Tin HouseBlack Warrior ReviewAQRPoet Lore, and Poems and Plays, among many others. His second full-length collection, Hope Tree, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2014. He has an MFA from the University of Arizona and teaches poetry at National University. A longtime resident of Indiana, he now lives in Los Angeles, California.

On a recent gloriously sunny afternoon, I had the privilege of sitting down to talk over lunch with the poet Anne Winters, author of two critically acclaimed volumes of poetry and several translations.  I was introduced to Ms. Winters’ work in graduate school and, ever since, have been an ardent admirer of her lushly orchestrated, yet intimate and searingly honest poems about the “big issues” that so many contemporary poets seem to shy away from: race, class, poverty, and gender.  Or, more to the point, the intersection of these forces playing out in individual lived experiences, including those of the poet.  Fittingly for a poet raised in New York City and for whom that city serves as muse, subject and mise en scéne, Ms. Winters chose to meet at Saul’s, a Jewish delicatessen incongruously nestled in the heart of Berkeley, CA, where she now resides. Over outsized latkes and steaming bowls of matzo ball soup, we discussed life in Berkeley (it really is paradisal); the joys and pains of translating Homer; the real subject of her poems; opera, French poetry; dinner parties with Elizabeth Bishop; teaching; the allure of distractions for the writer and a great many other subjects.  Unassuming, gentle, and brilliant, Ms. Winters gracefully guided the ship through the waters of High Art, culture and scholarship without making me feel too much like a landlubber.  An abbreviated selection from our discussion below highlights the origins of Ms. Winters’ poetic material and creative process.

One of the first questions I had for Anne was about her writing process–given the layered complexity and scope of almost every one of her published poems, I asked her how long it took to write a “Winters” poem.

Anne: I write slowly… it takes me so long and I am so obsessive.

And your poems have a density and formal perfection that bear the mark of that labor.  Do you write every day?  Or do you have periods where you have bursts of intense activity?

Well, sometimes life has been very good. It’s been very smooth.  You just get out of bed and write.  Especially when I was married and before I had Elizabeth, my daughter.  So I wrote my first book, well my first book I threw out, but I wrote my second book under those circumstances.  And I went on adding to it during the lifetime of my daughter, but after she came she was my first priority in a very conscious way.  I find it easy to understand Elizabeth Bishop’s way of writing.

What is it about her poems that speaks to you?

There is so much latent, and yet, in spite of working so hard, she has this very conversational surface.

Yes, and there is such a strong presence of a voice, a mind filling the poems. I think this is true in your poems as well, though the voice of course is quite different from Bishop’s. In your poems, there is this quality of being at once an individual I, an observer, and yet able to encompass a much larger consciousness.  How do you craft the voice in your poems?

Well, I’ll give you an example.  I wrote a poem about a girl who was killed in a kind of a brothel that was opposite the house where I grew up [“The Street”].  It took me months to figure out who should speak the poem.  In the final draft it was me, but I kept trying other things: my sister Vicky, my friend Charlene, a black girl on the block.  I wrote drafts in all these modes.  It took me a while to figure out who should be talking.  I finally couldn’t settle on anything better than that bay window.

Well, in that poem, there is the  I speaker, but then there are the eyeglasses and the compact. There are all these lenses and mirrors through which that scene is being viewed.

Yes, there is an awful lot going on in that poem….about gender.

Say more about that.

When I was writing that poem, I called my sister, and I said, “I don’t know if you remember it, but there was this girl…,” and she said, “Oh, I’ve remembered that all my life. I never talked about it, except about every ten years, I’d suddenly start talking a blue streak about it and then I couldn’t stop.”  It had been a great trauma to her as to me to see that woman killed so regardlessly and to see the people not helping her and above all to see my father not helping her.

The poem has that beautiful line about that: “from that we learned and learned.”

[...]She’d worked to please the ones inside that house

and now the stiff pageboy lay tumbled–black threads of it
wetted red–her cheek on the place where shoes
walked, dogs stopped–this was what was, other things

what people said.  And to that I must add, by our own stillness most of all
we were taught; from that we learned and learned.

It was a strong education.  That poem is one that gets more objections than any other.  You shouldn’t write about that.  It’s okay to kill women, but it’s not okay to write about it.

What kind of objections do people have?

Well, now the idea that you shouldn’t exploit people who aren’t like you is out there.  You shouldn’t write about poor people who got murdered because you’re exploiting them. In the first place, I don’t think I am, and in the second, it’s much more important to write about it than not to write about it.

I think your poems do what we should do in general, which is not to turn away, but to talk about these things and think about our own implication in them and to do it with a great deal of care.

And respect…and distance.

You have to pick the voice and you have to think a lot about your own distance and, although you don’t write about it unless you’re some other poet than myself, you think about why you’re drawn to [the subject] and what implications it has for you.  Whether [the latter] gets into the poem or not– it’s not necessarily going to get in overtly, but it might get in some other way.

I wanted to ask you about the Dan Chiasson article in Slate a few years ago, particularly about something that he said that I found quite provocative, which is that your work is especially troubled by, or aware of, the fact that art is one of the surpluses created by other people’s labor.

That’s always been the case…But I want to write about actual experiences.  It’s easy to say that, but that is what I want to do.  Any comfortable lifestyle now anywhere really is feeding on the work of people who don’t have a comfortable lifestyle.  That’s the sense in which other people’s labor produces culture.

Does that trouble you in a particular way?  Or is that where the fruitful tension in your work lies?

I don’t exactly know how to answer that.  The fact that our American lifestyle is supported in the ways we know by the labor of others abroad and here, I think that’s obvious in some of my poems about New York.  You know, I am sitting there enjoying the texture of New York and some boy I don’t know is giving me my coffee, but what did it take for that coffee to get to me?  I care a LOT about that.

[...]can I escape morning happiness,
or not savor our fabled “texture” of foreign
and native poverties? (A boy, tied into a greengrocer’s apron,
unplaceable accent, brings out my coffee.) But, no, it says here
the old country’s de-developing due to its mountainous
debt to the First World–that’s Broadway, my cafe
and my table[...]

I don’t think art makes anything worse.  Poetry means you’re writing about the world, in my case, and I think it’s good to write about the world.  And the worse things are, the more important it is to write about them.  And if you can make a poem out of them…you know, it’s not possible for other people.

It’s true, poetry doesn’t seem to do harm, but I wonder if it can do good.  Do you think it can?

I don’t know.  It can give pleasure to people.  I don’t know if it can change things.

When you read Villon, he opens up a whole world that most French poets didn’t do.  You know, Villon is writing about vagabonds, thieves, crooks.  Like his Balade des Pendus–who else could write a poem about that?  I don’t think one extra person has been hanged because he wrote about that!  My life has now carried me to a point where I am part of the middle class and therefore I much more conscious of what you were just talking about.

Going back to gender, it seems there is a strong connection between gender and class in your poems.   

Well my mother and my father were both extreme socialists.  When I was living with them I didn’t just experience what I experienced, I was informed by their ideas.  And I realize now how much the work of that working world that we were talking about is done by women.  And always has been.  You know no one has ever asked me about it or mentioned it, but I think the way women have to live is very much a subject of mine.  When I lived in my father’s house I remember that I would see a lot of people going to work at the same time that everyone else was coming home from work.  You know, the women were going out to clean the offices on Wall Street. I remember I was reading Charles Kinglsey’s The Water Babies.  Well, [in the book] the chimney sweep is getting up very early in the morning and going out when all the working people are going out, and I remember thinking, I’ve gotta go out at that hour.  My dad said you don’t want to get up that early, at 3 o’clock in the morning, but I insisted.  So we got up early; he was very obliging that way.   We went over to 145th and Broadway and all that early world of workers was there, stirring. To me it was just so interesting that all these different lives were going on.  I loved it.  But when I saw all the women going into the subway at 5 o’clock, I think that really bothered me.

Did you spend your entire childhood in Harlem?

No, before I went to Harlem I lived in a kind of orphanage. My parents put me and my sister into this kind of orphanage. So we lived there year round for several years and it was awful.  When I got out of there I was so grateful.  I hadn’t wanted to go to New York, but my father remarried and moved there.   He was in love with Harlem, which is why he settled there.  My particular relationship with the city when I was growing up came from my father’s love particularly. At that time he would go to Harlem jazz clubs. He was particularly a Billie Holiday follower.  I think probably the city would never have become a subject for me if it weren’t for him.

I was re-reading your poems yesterday, and I was struck by a recurring motif.  It’s in the lines from “Two Derelicts” [from The Key to the City]: “the city immeasurably far behind them/so many lightyears out from their last port”.  There are so many images of ships at sea, travelers…

Is that right?  Maybe that’s because I read a lot of Henry James.  He had more sea imagery than any writer I know.

Maybe, but I remember having the feeling when I first lived in NY and was just trying to find my bearings, and I felt a little bit adrift (There we go with the nautical imagery again!)  But I remember feeling like Manhattan was some kind of big ship that we were all on.   I am wondering if one of the impulses behind your poems might be home: where people belong and wanting to find home.

I was having lunch with a poet in New York.  She taught at the University of Maryland but she had kept her tiny apartment in the Village and she said, “When I am in the village I feel enclosed.”  That to me is so obviously true.  I’ve gotten used to Berkeley.  I feel enclosed in Berkeley.  But that was the way New York made me feel.

Do you think New York is a good place to live for a poet?

I doubt if it makes any difference at all.

You have a sort of map in your mind.  Rebecca Goldstein has a novel called The Mind Body Problem  where she talks about the mattering map….When I go back to New York I see that people are mattering about all kinds of different things. New York has so many people with so many different mattering maps.  That’s what makes it like it is.

It was after an initial reading that left me intrigued yet oddly ill-at-ease, that a tidbit in Caroline Knox’s laconic introduction to her new collection of poems from Wave Books, The Nine Worthies,  helped me, if not entirely to  penetrate a body of work that at times seems to take as its subject matter the very notion of the impenetrability of language, then at least to begin to understand the cause of my own disquietude. The clue (an apt noun considering that Nine Worthies is perhaps formally closer to a mystery novella than to a standard collection of modern lyric verse) that Knox provides is this: that the eighteenth century New England “real life” characters that inhabit these interlocking prose poems are in the midst of experiencing the “end of [their] Englishness.”

The year, we are told in an epigraph to the book, is 1756; the locations Boston and Newport.   If we view history as a series of cataclysmic events interspersed by unremarkable lulls, then it is understandable that an entire generation before the revolution that would make Americans out of  a hodgepodge of disgruntled  Englishmen-in-name-only would scarcely register as history at all.  In choosing as the site of her investigations this historical “negative space,” Knox is laying claim to fertile ground for exploring both the metaphysics of  “in-between”ness and our often unsuccessful but poetically rich attempts to craft identity, both personal and national, from the messy medium of language.

It is necessary at this point to reflect briefly on style because this volume makes clear that Knox is a master of it.  She shares with her characters both a fixation on accuracy and a reverence for the well-made object.; the latter made abundantly apparent by the beauty of the hand-bound, slightly oversize book itself.  The praise bestowed by one of her characters on a Miss Tyndale may equally describe the poet: “This lady is in accurate command of her thoughts, and of those of others as well.”  Knox’s obsessive attention to historical detail, as in a poem that is in essence a list of presumably extinct and rather Baroque-sounding varieties of cider apples, suggests the categorizing mind of the librarian or the auction house Antiquarian piecing together from archival flotsam the “story” of the past.  However, Knox’s agenda is almost the inversion of the historian’s: rather than laboring to fill in the lacunae to establish a narrative continuity in which events and their artifacts “link up”, Knox’s poems at every turn revel in the disjunctions and inevitable holes, in a self-conscious sense drawing a map of the in-between spaces that give shape to our “knowledge” of the past.  In the collection’s opening vignette “[Nathaniel: A Map]”, the painter protagonist  of this “verse novella” makes explicit the cartographic intention of the work at hand: “I describe a two-dimensional line in a three-dimensional world.  Boston is a map of itself.”  The book that follows likewise reads as “a map of itself” in which each  personage (one of the “Worthies” of the book’s title) in his or her discrete section attempts, one might say blindly, to draft a portion of it while remaining steadfastly ignorant of the whole.

To inhabit this historical no-man’s-land is also to enter into the American idiom in the very process of its creation.  It therefore becomes clear that the vaguely unnerving quality of this work results from subtly rendering English as if it has been translated from English. The speakers in these poems use language in such a way as to preclude conversation.  It is as though their thoughts have lost something in translation and can only find form when they attach themselves to physical objects, processes or systems.  It is, they seem to feel, imperative to establish identity through connoisseurship, erudition or pedigree.  Thus it is that our central character, Nathaniel Smibert, reiterates that he is, “playing at” or “practicing” “stichomythia.”  Stichomythia, or the dramatic technique of using alternating, syntactically similar lines of dialogue, usually to represent a violent or passionate argument, is an odd, probably impossible thing to be “practicing at,” as it inherently requires both a partner and a purpose.  To “play at” it as one might play at solitaire reminds me of the way infants begin to mimic the structure and sound of words and phrases before they have attached any  meaning to them.  In these poems, the many voices that emerge seem eager not so much to communicate, though their utterances are contained formally within a communicative mode, but to come into being as they speak.  Knox’s poems make visible what we all experience abstractly: that language is fluid and that, like most living systems with which we interact, it makes us as we make it.

Likening Nine Worthies to a mystery novella simultaneously makes sense of the formal construction of the book and attempts to delineate the relationship of text and author to reader.  On the latter point, it seems unimaginable to read these intricate and supremely mysterious poems and not perceive their wily author tugging at the strings.  Like her protagonist the portraitist Nathaniel Smibert, who is both there and not there as he paints and converses with his subjects, the poet herself sometimes seems to disappear into the rarified formality of the language only to reappear as the unmistakable voice behind the moving lips of her dummy-characters.  The “mystery” in which the reader of these poems becomes immersed lies partly in uncovering  these points of connection imbedded in an often alienating text.

If writer and principal character, both in the business of representation, are foils for one another, then the spectral appearances of the former  are mirrored by the latter’s ghost-like ruminations, full of  intimations of death and dream-like meanderings through personal history, that interrupt the rhetorically-dense “sittings” of the painter’s subjects.  In the charming vignette “[Nathaniel: Noddles Island],” Nathaniel narrates a childhood memory in which a change in vantage point suggests an entire universe inverted:

Time and again father took me–in 1740, 1742 or so–in the shallop or sailboat to Noddles Island in Boston Harbor.  He had painted the city from there, looking back west as if approaching for the first time[…]Who or what was Noddles?  Father and I conjectured.[…]He wore his clothes inside out, with the armor on the inside; he ate his pudding before the main course, wearing his nightshirt; thinking he had reached Nantucket,  he kissed  the ground of the island to which he was allowed to give his dubious name.

These images as seen from the other side of the looking glass encapsulate the energy of the book as a whole.  In these poems, Knox creates a world in which things are not only not as they seem, but may be found in their precisely inverted forms.  In this world, dialogue prevents communication, subject becomes object, representation invites obsolescence.

That Smibert’s subjects speak out in apparent desperation from the positions in which he is trying to fix their portraits suggests that there is a keen correlation between their immortalization in paint and their demise as physical beings.  Among the Nine Worthies Smibert has been “commissioned to paint” is Mrs. Mary Davie, “[w]idow of a sea captain,”  who has apparently attained her place among the elect simply by having lived to 117.  Among her colleagues, she evinces the most dignified understanding of the fact that to be painted is to abdicate biological being to symbolic immortality. “I am near the end of my own days, Mr. Smibert,” she says, “I will sit here as still as I might.”

The “other side of the looking glass” feel of these poems, and the correspondence they draw between representation and death make all the more poignant and chilling the final section of the section of the book, “Nathaniel Smibert, Self-Portrait.”  It takes a modicum of sleuthing to figure out that Smibert is painting these portraits in the year of his death at age 22.  It is fitting, and perhaps inevitable according to the equation that Knox has formulated, that Smibert’s death and his final act of self-representation should occur simultaneously.  The subject of Smibert’s “self-portrait” is a canoe trip to see the famous Dighton Rock, or perhaps the subject is the “inconvenient rock” itself, standing as an  apt symbol for any number of human frailties and hopes.

A “mysterious erratic stone” covered in petroglyphs in the middle of the Taunton River, the rock has been the subject of much fanciful conjecture as to the origins of its carvings.  According to one of Smibert’s two companions on this pilgrimage, the prolix Mr. Ezra Stiles, the carvings, “have been called Viking, Algonkin, Chinese, and Portuguese.”  His preferred theory is that they are Phoenician.  It is the other of the two companions, a “bonded child from the inn”, whose eyewitness account of the carvings-in-progress ultimately holds more water.  The child describes how he has seen Indians come to this rock to fish, open shellfish, shoot game, and sharpen their knives.  It is in this way that they, “hone away their own marks and the marks of other hunters.  This is how the marks came to be.”  That the more solid and convincing image of Dighton Rock is that of a palimpsest, incessantly erased and re-written, having neither provenance nor author, and ultimately transmitting no meaning beyond what the last knife sharpener might have gleaned therein before he set his own knife upon its surface exemplifies the point Knox’s book makes about language and other forms of representation.  Perhaps here, at the end of his life and at the book’s conclusion, Smibert (and we) are confronted with the realization that all our works of art are only knife sharpenings, destined to be effaced or misconstrued.  But perhaps our prospects are not so gloomy, for the book ends with Smibert, “from plain contentment,” singing a song that echoes all across the river.  And the words of the song describe a sort reconstructed tower of Babel: “And how can it be that we/In our language understand/Medes and Cappadocians and/Phrygians and Pamphylians,/Cretans and Arabians./In our tongues we hear them laud/All the wondrous works of God.”

Nine Worthies is something of a Tower of Babel: multifarious in diction, opulent in detail, complex in meaning and, finally it seems, reaching toward the heavens.  Whether its carefully crafted walls and columns contain within them an ur-language that transcends  or a cacophony of voices that attempt speech but achieve only noise is ultimately up to each reader to decide.