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nine worthies

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.