Elyse Fenton

Cleveland State University Poetry Center


Monday, June 14th, 2010

I get a lot of books of poetry in the mail. Since I know how hard it is for poetry presses to stay in the black, how hard it is for poets to get their books reviewed, how hard it is to realize how very few people will read one’s poetry even if it gets widely noticed, I read each book that arrives (even though many of them come to me from people who have clearly never read a review I’ve written) simply because someone took the trouble to send it to me. I could build a small yet sturdy dwelling out of the books I’ve received, and living inside that edifice would be like inhabiting a little igloo of guilt, for the dismay of not being able to review them all is only compounded by my appreciation of how few of their authors would even want my attention if only they knew how unpleasant it might be.

Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t that I dislike most of these books. I just have no use for them. That has everything to do with my experiences as a reader and very little do with the work itself. I can usually identify what aspects of any individual book might appeal to a certain subset of readers, which means that I can engineer what preferences and convictions a reader would need to have in order to extract that value. While that might seem like useful skill for a reviewer to have, it actually complicates the act of reviewing immeasurably, because it enables the reviewer to at least attempt an occupation of the mind of both the writer and the reader, and set them up on a kind of aesthetic date. This is a complication because Jesus, God, why would anyone want to spend a Sunday night doing that?

Of course, some reviewers just settle for using those skills as a kind of targeting mechanism, and savage books that they wish hadn’t been written as a way of punishing readers who they wish didn’t exist. While it might be understandable, if not excusable, to do this every once in awhile, anyone who makes a career out of it is simply an ass. They may claim to be serving the greater good, but since there is not and never can be agreement as to of what the greater good obtains, they are simply serving their own delight in being an ass, a creature that brays its love of itself loudly, with no tonal variety, at extraordinary length.

Unfortunately, it’s equally indulgent to write only about those books with which you share notions of that indeterminate good, not least because the books which you consider are likely to make the case for their arguments and preoccupations via the poems they contain more effectively than can your prosaic assessment of them.

Thus, many critics find themselves working the margins, waiting for books that represent an interesting trend, or pose a provocative question, even as they ignore the reality that with a little attention and ingenuity, any book can be made to represent any trend or ask any question the reviewer wants.

Of what use is the reviewer? What is the reviewer for? How is it possible that this review can be 550 words in without having once mentioned the title of the book under review?

Every now and again a book arrives in the mail that so perfectly concentrates the reviewer’s dilemma that it deserves scrutiny, even as that scrutiny must inevitably suffer either one of the problems listed above or else result in claims of such competitive and exclusionary provenance that the review will offer no direction whatsoever. Well, I warned you.

Elyse Fenton’s Clamor is a primer on the temptations of lyricism. You want the poet to surrender to those temptations, you see beauty; you want the poet to resist, you see beautification. Too mechanistic? Let’s take a look, then: “Outside, light // and snow clung to the windows like the paper / edges of a hive crushed in” and “(…) frost whittles the grass // to shards, the pear tree breathes / beneath a shroud of ice” and “Ice cauls our windows. Snow / paraffins the trees.”

Yeah. Okay. See? If you think of the pre-lyricized object as inert, you might see these lines as necessary upgrades, activations of the mundane into the poetic: beautiful, striking, strange, rich. But if you don’t think of any language or object as inherently inert, or as inherently anything, you might find these formulations precious, twee, unnecessary, distracting. If the former, your defense could run as follows: what? Ice is ice! Frost is frost and snow is snow! If the latter, your attack could ask what? Ice is ice! Frost is frost! Snow is snow!

Don’t look at me. I can’t help you.

Unless, of course, you find it helpful to know the context from which I’ve extracted those lines. However, you’re only likely to find that helpful if you believe context exists. So for those who do, know that Clamor marks the spot where war poetry meets love poetry at the sub-genre of war bride poetry. If you would prefer that I place those categories in scare quotes, then you don’t believe in the categories at all, and what I tell you next won’t move you an inch, for when I say that its disingenuous of us to refer to “the speaker” of these poems, since it’s damn well obvious that she’s Fenton herself, and that her subject is not a merely a lingual representation of an army medic but her lover and husband, you’ll likely retort that such truths are irrelevant, because the poems must either prove themselves as felt or stand as constructions unfortified by truth-value. Which would make sense, sort of, were it not for my suspicion that the very readers who would insist on the unimportance of real-world context would be those very same readers who would roll their eyes at the ice-cauled windows.

Too mechanistic? Okay, let’s try again. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from “Word from the Front”:

His voice over the wind-strafed line
drops its familiar tone to answer,
Yes, we did a corkscrew landing down
into the lit-up city, and I’m nodding

on my end, a little pleased by my own
insider’s knowledge of the way
planes avert danger by spiraling
deep into the coned center of sky

deemed safe, and I can’t help but savor
the sound of the word – the tracer round
of its pronunciation – and the image –
a plane corkscrewing

down into the verdant green
neck of Baghdad’s bottle-glass night (…)

Let’s assume some suspicion of the lyrical. Note, with that suspicion, of how the professed pleasure of the “insider” (which, were you as cynical as you were suspicious, you might consider a warning sign) quickly gives way to the pleasures of the immediate lyric upgrade. Instead of corkscrewing, they spiral, not down into the lit-up city but down first into the coned center of sky. The speaker, or Fenton, cannot help but return to corkscrew as an occasion for poetry: she savors its sound, and even goes so far as to characterize its tracer round (another bit of “insider” knowledge?) sound, though it might be odd even to the generous to liken an optical effect to a word’s sound, even as one mixes one’s military metaphors. In any case, the plane isn’t landing in the lit-up city anymore, anyway; it’s the verdant green neck of Baghdad’s bottle-glass night. A heartless reader might well ponder the effect on military operational language such fancies might have, but if you think a reader heartless for such a speculation, I reckon you don’t even think it’s appropriate to wonder.

So do you regard the translation of the soldier’s report of fact into the war bride’s lyric elaboration of it as a central function of poetry? Or do you read that excerpt and wish fervently that poetry would cease functioning in that way? Beauty, or beautification?

Fenton, or the speaker, nods towards this question in “Refusing Beatrice,” in which she suggests “Maybe it’s time to stop comparing–” though the comparison she refers to isn’t between the experiences and their lyric component but between she and her husband and Beatrice and Dante. But immediately after, she writes

I could never be Beatrice, couldn’t harbor such good faith.

And I won’t be there in the Tigris basin to watch
heat flake cinders of paint from the Chinook’s body
like a rug shook out

or see it hasten to the sky’s surface
like an untethered corpse –

My curse or gift is blindness;
I’ve never read this story before.

My response to this is to suspect that however heat flakes cinders off a Chinook, it is almost exactly not like shaking out a rug, just as I think it hastens to the sky’s surface in a fashion that almost but not quite fails to resemble that of an untethered corpse. To which you may reply: Yes! Exactly! The power of poetry! Ha ha! Or perhaps you may simply wonder, as does the speaker, or Fenton, whether the blindness those lines accidentally describe is, indeed, a gift or a curse. It isn’t hard at all to decide which you believe is the case, but it’s hard to prove, if the evidence you muster for the defense is indistinguishable from that of the prosecution.

A few years ago I noticed that people had begun to terminate conversations about upsetting or uncertain matters by claiming “It is what it is.” I noticed shortly thereafter the rage this inspired. Really? It is what it is? There’s a work of fucking deductive genius. Neither point can be disputed. I can see the ways in which Clamor is a deeply serious book as well as a silly one. It is what it is, even when it isn’t.

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6 Responses to “Clamor”

  1. Arielle Greenberg Says:

    I love this review. I am going to use it for teaching purposes, if that’s ok with you guys. It’s so smart (and in a real person sort of way!) about poetry, aesthetics, criticism…

    Also, Ray really articulates something that bugs the hell out of me, too, in poetry. I often think of it with the term “decorous”…and then I think of Mary Karr’s essay “Against Decoration” which is funny because although I love many things about Mary, she and I do not share taste in poetry. But the idea of being “against decoration” as I interpret that for myself is important to me.

    And so hard to fight, right? I mean, as poets, we have this urge to splash around in language, go all starry-eyed over its possibilities. How to do this AND be honest, authentic, plain in places, weird in places, and not just “pretty”? Or, even when not JUST pretty, I wonder why make something *pretty* out of something complicated and strange and open?

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this review. Thanks!


  2. HTMLGIANT Says:

    […] reviewing: John Cotter on John Cotter at WWAATD and Ray McDaniel on Elyse Fenton’s Clamor at the Constant Critic. Tags: Book Reviews, constant critic, john […]

  3. Jordan Davis Says:

    > I can usually identify what aspects of any individual
    > book might appeal to a certain subset of readers, which
    > means that I can engineer what preferences and
    > convictions a reader would need to have in order to
    > extract that value.

    This is what blurbs are for, right? To declare which authority figures co-sign, and therefore what preferences and previous reading experiences will be affirmed by the contents.

    In the case of the book under discussion, though, I had the feeling that the book itself had the in-quotes quality you describe above — that while there was clearly a real, lived experience of the home front, it was an apolitical, freaked-out, traumatized permanent-present experience. Part of it was what you call the beautification — the not-but rhetoric, the variable pacing of the sentences, the intermittently memorable images — but mainly I couldn’t shake the numb feeling I got from these poems.

    It may be that I imagined I got what she was saying too quickly, or it may be that I failed to bring enough to the poems; I may just be anxious about the subjects of war, absence, colossal insignificance; and more than likely I don’t have enough training in the codes of the blurbers and the prize judge and the press.

    The usual way around these problems is to declare victory and leave.

  4. D. A. Powell Says:

    Decorous: “characterized by dignified propriety in conduct, manners, appearance, character, etc.”

    Shares its root with decorum. As in “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

    It doesn’t mean the same thing as decorative.

  5. D. A. Powell Says:

    Prize judges are usually looking for good work over familiar aesthetics. Let’s not get them confused with critics, especially those critics who think they’re reviewing a whole bunch of different restaurants but are always applying the same standard. Each of the restaurants might indeed be capable of producing a wide menu, but of it is of no consequence if they know that the critic is always ordering the chicken.

  6. Raymond McDaniel Says:

    Oh, I don’t think prize judges or critics or readers in general are looking for different things. All are equally free to prefer the chicken, or the duck, or the swan, or the tofurkey – and each will elect and define what they find good.

    But it’s worth admitting a preference, if one has one, and it’s worth understanding and appreciating the preferences of others, even if one doesn’t share them.

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