All Together Now! How Description Fosters Connection

What kinds of connection can poetry make?... It’s an unexpected question, perhaps, because verse has often been thought of as the genre of isolation or wholeness: a well-wrought urn stood in timeless completion, an overheard speaker murmuring of himself to himself.

But much of today’s most arresting poetry spurns the dream of self-sufficiency for the drama of relation. Scan even the titles of the works under consideration here—The Network, The Bigger World, Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines, Shoulder Season—which speak of webs, expansions, pieces, and interstices. These books live in transition, they manifest its links and gaps. Their art seeks on-leading ends rather than in-looking bounds, shunning causality and sublimity alike as they instead associate among words, thoughts, people, political agents. Managing connection, for these writers, is at once a formal task and a thematic statement.

This is especially evident in The Network, Jena Osman’s volume of five related verse-essays. Osman uses prose, stanzas, drawings, photographs, maps, and diagrams; she cites references from history, literature, science, law, and popular culture. In the breadth of her juxtaposed investigations, in her emphasis on the materiality of language, and in her deployment of different types of writing, she extends an avant-garde lineage that includes Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, and Lyn Hejinian—all of whom Osman has acknowledged as models. But she is more political than Howe, more plainly lucid than Scalapino, and less focused than Hejinian on the status of the subject. (In the introduction to Osman’s book The Character, Hejinian herself notes that Osman’s subjectivity “exists in connections.”) Osman has already invented a unique and striking poetics, and The Network emphasizes its importance.

Take “Financial District,” the fourth section. Focused on lower Manhattan, it proceeds by triads: the first poem in each is labeled with a street name (“Cortlandt,” “Fletcher,” etc.), the second with a financial term (“credit,” “panic”), and the third with a sum of the two previous (“Wall + Depression,” “Fulton + Commerce”). Street-name poems sketch a timeline running from seventeenth-century discoveries to twentieth-century panics, attending particularly to the history of slave labor amid other financial exploitation. (That Osman wrote this before Occupy Wall Street began only emphasizes the prescience of her historical vision.) The pages labeled with financial terms, meanwhile, provide etymological charts—the prongs of which yoke “securities” to “accuracy” and “scour,” or “invest” to “transvestite” and “travesty.” The “+” pages then tease out collusions of verbal and political power. “Maiden + Profit,” for example, wonders about

forward, combining form of, to make, for anterior etymology, factus, factum, fact. then ‘an act for preventing suppressing and punishing the conspiracy and insurrection of negroes and other slaves.’ the market soars in the name of projected commerce. see prophet?

These ruminations alternate with italicized snippets of narrative, like parts of a science-fiction movie flitting among a newsreel, that tell of a female figure trying to link to a “network” while evading pursuers: “the frequencies keep her running in complicated patterns through irregular streets.” Intersecting reticulations of language and history meet intersecting metamorphoses of genetics and technology: “the veins of the network scatter and recombine in her biology and smoke.”

Four new poetry books spurn the dream of self-sufficiency for the drama of relation.

The result is complicated but not confusing. Rigorous form and copious facts prevent vagueness. They also thwart didacticism: to read Osman is to feel neither lost nor led. The Network thus makes good on a claim from her first book, The Character, that “experimental forms are not relinquishing judgment, so much as they are questioning the system that produces such forms of justice.” This sort of argument, in other contexts, could excuse the aesthetically slipshod as politically radical; The Network, by contrast, is carefully crafted, forceful, and daring. Osman does not refuse rational meanings: she researches them, rearranges them. “The Joker,” for example, discusses racism in contemporary Philadelphia, 1912 Senate hearings on imported sugar, and Batman’s debt to Victor Hugo in order to question the relationship between satire and prejudice. Osman’s work is both precisely tuned and dynamically uncontrollable. The Network pushes past conventional poetry by relying on a combinatory freedom unique to the genre.

• • •

Poetic freedom is equally evident in a less prepossessing volume, Noelle Kocot’s The Bigger World. This collection is plainspoken, third-person, and unexpected. Whereas Kocot’s previous two books mourned the loss of her husband in anguished and metaphorically loaded lines, The Bigger World presents brief vignettes about named characters. “Seymour left the beach and traveled / Down a dirt road,” one poem begins; “Saskia took a turn for the better,” starts another. The atmosphere is surreal folklore, Julie Hecht meets Hans Christian Andersen. A tax-cheating dentist’s term in purgatory will last “as long as it takes to fill / Out a million 1040 forms, / Minus one rotation of a drill.” Yet while they read like stories, the poems forswear narrative logic, tumbling their occupants instead among level planes of the banal and weighty.

These narratives show how contingency unravels even the best plans or explanations, and they enact bittersweet resignation about missed connections and inexplicable correlations. When Molly tries to help Stu, whose “life was gray and / Valueless, but still, the nicest / Person you would ever want / To know,” she ends up

back home,
A song lingering, an agony
Played backwards, superimposed
Upon her, and she looked in
The mirror for signs of anguish,
And, not finding any, she slept.

Something has occurred, but not enough to identify or regret. Many of Kocot’s poems conclude with characters simply falling asleep or wandering off. They are against climax rather than anticlimactic. The best way to read them may be to adopt that spirit, accepting the less successful (“Welcome Mat” or “True Story”) for the more evocative (“Fugue” or “Aunt Lee Watches the First Snow”) and suspecting that the collection as a whole is transitional—a chance to imagine styles and subjects not conditioned by personal grief.

• • •

In Sarah—of Fragments and Lines, Julie Carr weighs her own burden. Her poems expect a mother’s death as well as a daughter’s birth. Her yearning clauses are far from Kocot’s matter-of-fact sentences, however. Carr’s work suggests a Victorian lushness disciplined by postmodern skepticism—Gerard Manley Hopkins chastened by George Oppen. The poem “Conception Fragment,” for example, asks

daylight and tree buds
petro-
detritus and dust
what’s winged
in the open of your pregnancy?

Charged gaps capture the fear and hope of imminence: in the venture of “petro-,” the chance of “winged” and “open,” the alliterative affinity of “daylight” to the biblical-industrial pollution in “detritus and dust.” Petrified and winged, these lines seem carefully placed yet about to fly off. Indeed throughout the book images of birds link collection and absence. “Beak clipping the scraps of your old existence, the strings of your future weave,” Carr writes to Sarah, before regretting how “you are forced into days, broken into hours, and those hours mercilessly sliced.” Carr mourns sliced-up consciousness even as she demonstrates it.

As she does so, she moves through various “abstracts,” “fragments,” and “lines,” as well as messages to and of Sarah. The book is as shaped as Network, and similarly indebted to a tradition of linguistic experiment. But whereas Osman picks apart political webs, Carr unknits biological connections; from her first book, Carr has worried about the language—the I, you, and she—of both having and being a child. In Sarah Carr tries to accept the abandon and abandonment in both relationships. Her final poem, “Lines to Scatter,” thus presents the dispersal of ashes, words, memories, intentions: “Our bet is with the wind.” But the poem also quotes the biblical promise of “ever and ever” shining, and Sarah discovers that luminosity in the space between pieces and moments—as in the early “Daylight Abstracts,” which gathers up clauses of a morning’s waking. “Now flare. Now come to this,” the poem begins. For Carr, fragments can spark a brief transfiguration even as they sustain a daily melancholy.

• • •

A different pleasure attends the verbal flares of Shoulder Season, Ange Mlinko’s third and best collection. If Carr is avian, scattering phrases in regretful flights, Mlinko is feline, winding up her stanzas in satisfied play. Smart in several senses—chic, learned, shrewd—Mlinko deploys an unabashedly esoteric vocabulary for aural delight. “Dirt” conjures a “vision of Zsigmund II and Zsigmund III / driving to Santos in the Romi-Isetta,” and “Kouign Amann” describes how “Bretagne’s off-kilter // menhirs call to our bric-a-brac rock / like names orphaned after the glaciers’ retreat / from Bricquebec to Wequetequock.” Her best passages find a buoyant, Paul Muldoon–like register in which inventiveness defeats the threat of obscurity. Invention also capitalizes on fragmentation: in an earlier collection, Mlinko describes the gaps between things as merely “rifts out of which the hatching of a new being,” and in Shoulder Season she hatches novelty after novelty. Here are fresh rhymes of subject with subject—a bridge “suspension like a row of legs / poised on the barre,” or sprinklers sending “scimitars through my clothes”—as well as sound with sound—“treetops’ psych ops / combusting all over / the ground / tasked / with a snowdrop,” or a picture “in whose rococo frame a curtain sweeps to bare / a boudoir.”

Kocot’s poems enact bittersweet resignation about missed connections.

The method courts obvious criticisms: flashy performance could mask an absence of personality, and high style might cloak a void of substance. In earlier volumes Mlinko’s more frankly O’Hara-ish mode did seem somewhat put on. But the intelligence of Shoulder Season is more singular and trustworthy, drawing from an experience that can honestly bring together Amish country, São Paulo, and Vienna, or The View from Nowhere and Put Me in the Zoo, or New Jersey blueberries and Azerbaijan oil derricks. The book demonstrates a cosmopolitanism that is accurate and curious rather than prejudicial or relativistic. It can thus chart reliably the vertigos of globalization. “Securitization” takes the associations of the financial crisis, in which one’s mortgage is bundled to a stranger’s “far inside the starbursts of a server,” as a chance to examine hedges in other domestic arrangements, marriage and poetry included.

In fact much of Mlinko’s riskiest and most satisfying work sets her household in an unreliable field of historical, linguistic, and naturalistic crosscurrents. My favorite poem in Shoulder Season is “Squill” (first published in these pages), which moves from a parent’s hypersensitivity—what’s that sound? is the baby waking?—into a dream about some missed aural link to forebears. “Jewel box, toolbox,” Mlinko riffs:

my ears’ spindles chimed and tattled
out of dreamland, the dice in their cups
little movie screens on each side
playing different scenarios. A joke,
the child too quiet. What it belied
was that he might choke,
but I could hear what his digits dallied
and knew he was still gambling.
This is what it means to rally
for the future, as my father lambing
on all fours with him madly
termed “answering the call of life”
never knowing whence I came
or what dirt was made flesh on my behalf.

Mlinko’s skill with sound—joke/choke, dally/rally—and her subtlety with figures—dice to gambling, lambing to incarnation—quicken the pace, straining toward a call of the future in her sleeping child as she also articulates unknowable pasts. The excitement of the poem lies in following, with equal parts wonder and worry, where the sounds could lead.

Mlinko’s lively anxiety is, thus, far from Carr’s stricken care, though Mlinko shows equally well how unexpected connection can complicate our most intimate roles. And if her domestic focus is far from Osman’s politics, Mlinko is as successful in demonstrating how connections begin and end with language. “Squill” knows what “Financial District,” in its very different way, also presses home: that description can foster the very associations it would report, that the metaphoric echoes in what we say can emphasize the ethical affiliations in what we do. The depth of a word might be the breadth of a world.