The Thrill of Unfamiliar Voices

Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin/BPK/Art Resource
Roelandt Savery: Paradise, 1626

A good first book of poetry introduces a name and establishes a claim. A second, if successful, reassures us that the first was no fluke. But what about a third book?

This is a question raised by two splendid new third collections, Sarah Lindsay’s Twigs and Knucklebones and Greg Williamson’s A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck. Lindsay is in her early fifties, Williamson in his mid-forties, and my sense is that neither has the reputation he or she deserves. While this lack of renown may be personally unfortunate (we all admire but who wants to be an unacknowledged master?), for potential readers it offers a collateral compensation: the thrill of chancing upon an unfamiliar voice whose work is the real thing.

With her first book, Primate Behavior (1997), Lindsay might well have declared—were she not a poet who tempers her statements—that her subject was the world. Primate Behavior showed her continually sallying off to the planet’s outermost reaches: there were poems about arctic expeditions and jungles and crushing marine depths. She was likewise venturesome across history: there were poems about Constantinople and prehistoric cave-painters and various animals that vanished long before we humans could contribute to their extinction. From the outset of her career, Lindsay has employed a flexible free verse, and since her poems have often embraced evolutionary subjects (both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace have made notable appearances), her loose meter might be considered a means of adaptation; whenever her imagination has found an ecological niche where a poem might survive (an alpine rockface, a horse-dotted steppe, a moon of Jupiter), she has gone there.

Williamson’s meters and designs are anything but free. He’s like one of those stage magicians who, before making an escape, affably requests that another chain be wrapped around his torso. In his second book, Errors in the Script (2001), he invented a tightly bound light-verse structure, the “double exposure,” in which two narratives simultaneously, contrapuntally unfold while forging a third, unified whole. His new book consists entirely of rhymed sonnets—sixty-nine of them—which sounds rigid enough, but he goes the form one better by subjecting it to a range of odd, self-imposed restrictions: in every sonnet, the title is identical to the last word or words of the poem; the ninth line of each opens with “Until”; and the closing six lines invariably intimate or chronicle a death.

For all their divergent aims, Twigs and Knucklebones and A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck leave a similar impression of a career being delineated. This third time around, larger contours come into view. Quirks reveal themselves as character traits, preoccupations as recurring themes. Readers now have enough material from both authors to envisage the possible future range and command of a life’s work.

Like Lindsay’s earlier two volumes, Primate Behavior and Mount Clutter (2002), Twigs and Knucklebones has three parts. Each book boasts an ambitious, thematically unified middle sequence, flanked on each side by looser sections that take up a wild variety of subjects. In all three, there are few short poems—almost nothing as brief as a sonnet—and nothing very long; four pages seem to be Lindsay’s natural limit.

The books are united as well by a fascination with exotic animals. In Twigs and Knucklebones we glimpse dodos, mynah birds, quaggas, filarial worms, jerboas. The book’s opening poem, “Song of the Spadefoot Toad,” asks the reader to harmonize the inscrutable cul-de-sac of a human death with the ongoing interchanges of the animal world, on a restive planet

where spadefoot toads
wake from eleven months’ sleep and sing
till their throats bleed, where humans
do everything humans do, where a fig wasp
pollinates a flower while laying her eggs,
then lies on her side as baby nematodes
crawl from her half-eaten gut, and where faithfully
every day in mangrove shallows
paired seahorses—armless, legless, without expression—
dance with each other at sunrise.

The middle section of Twigs and Knucklebones, which makes up the bulk of the book, is a fragmented investigation of the kingdom of Nab, an imaginary Middle Eastern empire that traded and at times warred with neighbors like the Hittites and Assyrians. Lindsay subdivides the section into “Late Kingdom,” “Middle Kingdom,” and “Early Kingdom,” depending on the depth at which her contemplated objects—oil lamps, papyri, clay tablets—were disinterred.

The sequence’s broader subject is archaeology itself—specifically, the frustrations and elusive beauties of a painstakingly reconstructed but irremediably patchy past. If the discipline of archaeology is inherently dry—an endless poring over dusty objects—this would seem especially true for scholars of the Mideast. As Lindsay conceives it, Nab’s changing history was shaped by drought. While Nab’s own chroniclers naturally focused on dynastic succession and the glories of warfare, it’s the much later job of the archaeologist to construe the effects of desertification and insupportable demographic pressures.

Into this world of slivers and scraps and remnants—potsherds, broken stelae, eroded inscriptions—Lindsay introduces her own fragmentary con- tribution. This is a contemporary scholar named Nadine (surname not given), whose excavations into an ancient war-torn landscape are themselves vulnerable to modern military disturbances. She also serves as a sensibility in which high-flying myth and grounded fact potentially conflict: Nadine is doing her Ph.D. thesis on Nab’s great Warrior King, who, evidence increasingly suggests, was all of eight years old when he supposedly achieved one of his greatest conquests.

Lindsay comes to her imagined kingdom as a kind of irrigator. Inspiration in this sequence of poems equals liquefaction—a way of bringing running water, the coursing pulse of life, back into a desiccated terrain. Confronting a museum shelf of chipped pots and jars, the poet takes it as her task to fill them with the fluids of domestic life; she animates long-vanished bazaars with freshets of hope and anticipation; she dots the landscape with dark pools of greed and chicanery. Here is a little meditation about a teenage girl who died of a sudden illness “thousands of years before the drug/that could have cured her was bottled”:

On her last ordinary day
she laughed at a joke,
setting in motion
the air you just inhaled.
She licked honey
from her fingers,
and they didn’t taste like dust.

As it stands, Lindsay’s sequence about excavations in a lacunae-riddled landscape itself feels disjointed. I suspect the sequence needs to be longer than the thirty-plus pages it occupies in Twigs and Knucklebones.

When her poems triumph, as they frequently do, she often owes her success to a fresh gift for simile and analogical thinking. She unpacks images with great economy: “A clam family’s broken dishes,” or “the broad-shouldered lame, the sniffing blind,” or “where a spider in shadow works her equation,” or “the glacier putting its steady white foot forward,” or:

the Pole, where daytime stretches like taffy
and icebergs move in vast and moaning herds.

It’s a hard-hearted reader who would not respond to newly hatched salmon that “careen toward the sea in their little toboggan bodies,” or a case of senility that “takes the brain in its soft retriever’s mouth,” or the thousand prisms that “wink in a blackened gull’s petroleum coat,” or the Neanderthal whose “skills come from the wrong past.”

But many of her poems reveal a still more formidable strength: a deep receptivity to the thrill of scientific thinking and discovery. She writes poems with names like “Arsinoitherium” (an extinct mammal related to elephants) or “Buprestidae, Cantharidae” (two families of beetles) or even “Aluminum Chlorohydrate” and manages, improbably, to get away with it. A meditation on the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (“who honored the property of density/by tending to have another idea/between any two ideas”) suggests a hint of sly self-portraiture; Lindsay keeps finding her inspiration by poking into the interstices of things.

I sometimes wonder what future literary critics will make of our era, and my guess is that what they’ll find most puzzling is that science—which daily transmogrifies our lives—figured so little in our poetry and fiction. Among contemporary American poets, Richard Kenney has probably gone furthest in the exploration of the scientific imagination—a journey in many ways paralleled in prose by Richard Powers’s novels. Lindsay provides another happy exception—a poet who enters the scientist’s lab with an open mind and an open notebook. There’s a breathtaking image in Primate Behavior that brings decades of stunning astronomical photographs into sharper focus:

the height from which
the galaxy is a film of milk
twirling on a glassful of dishwater.

Lindsay has chosen a perilous poetic terrain. With her bestiary of bizarre creatures, her forays into a dim archaeological past, her fascination with scientific instruments, and her abrupt leaps from the metaphorical to the minutely literal, she continually calls up the ghost of Marianne Moore, who can be a baleful influence. Poets who recently have had a pleasant excursion to the zoo, or have watched a stirring documentary on the Discovery Channel, or have chanced upon a remote naturalist’s memoir in the library often find the temptation to write a Moore imitation all but irresistible. But if Lindsay, like Moore, occasionally verges on the cloyingly whimsical, she shares Moore’s saving gift for making her choice of outré subjects seem logically chosen. What initially looks like willful eccentricity is gradually revealed to be faithfulness to one’s own singularity. When Moore writes about some peculiar animal—a narwhal or a pangolin—the reader always feels that it is neither more nor less real to her than the squirrels and sparrows she saw in Brooklyn.

A more serious reservation about Lindsay’s work may lie in its lack of architecture. It was nearly a hundred years ago that T.S. Eliot, in “Reflections on Vers Libre,” declared that “the ghost of some simple meter should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse.” This “ghost” needn’t resolve itself into something tangible and identifiable, according to Eliot, but in the best free verse there’s often the illusion that it’s about to. (Many a young Walt Whitman scholar, surely, has scanned line after line of Leaves of Grass, convinced that the hidden pattern of its construction is just about to disclose itself.) When the brightness of Lindsay’s thinking momentarily dims, her lines can lie flat on the page. Perhaps this is why some of her best poems have a somewhat complicated syntax, providing a rhetorical density that safeguards against a lack of tension, as in the gorgeous “By Luristan to Thule,” which opens Primate Behavior. I assume its subject is a Victorian “lady explorer,” but whoever it is, the expedition itself is wondrous. Here is the first stanza:

Delirium was the last country she saw clearly.
Mounting its exotic, riven flanks
on the bank of a patient fever,
she left with regret the land of her hosts—
divisions of snow, upended stone threaded with tracks
between the goatskin houses with goatskin beds—
then left too the regret.

There’s not a faltering moment in my favorite poem in Lindsay’s new book, “Mawson in a Crevasse.” It marks a return of Douglas Mawson, the English-born polar explorer (1882–1958), who made an appearance in Mount Clutter. During one particularly harrowing expedition, both of Mawson’s companions died, and he himself hung in harness over a seemingly bottomless crevasse, held dangling by the lines of his sledge. The poem makes an abrupt change of scene toward its close, shifting to a fictional cellist in Australia, living in comfort and ease, who is fated to die the very evening after playing a Haydn quartet that, unbeknownst to him, serves as a dirge:

Who is nearer death: Mawson, freezing with his knife,
in tentative swaying motion
like the planchette of a speechless Ouija board?
or the cellist of a quartet in Melbourne?
They’re deep into Haydn, the Largo that’s played
for funerals, but today for itself, for joy,
and the cellist sways in the dream of needing no more.

An English explorer lost in an antarctic chasm, an Australian musician whose body is about to implode, and an eighteenth-century Austrian composer who lived much of his life in a nobleman’s palace—all three together hang suspended for a few moments, over an abyss of the poet’s making.

There is no shortage of architecture in Williamson’s A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck. His potential pitfalls are the opposite of Lindsay’s: a threat of sameness and depletion in anything so formally scripted. The impulse to create a stylistic tour de force can lead easily to wayward literary pilgrimages—like Georges Perec’s writing a three-hundred-page novel (La Disparition, 1969) without employing the letter e. It’s a danger Williamson largely circumvents through sheer cleverness: there’s an extraordinary amount of wit and wordplay—outrageous puns, fractured homilies, garbled quotations, double entendres—in his short book.

A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck recalls those planetarium shows that, in their vertiginous final minutes, whirl the audience through the cosmos. The first two poems are “Time” and “Space.” We begin with a bang—the Big Bang—and drift steadily homeward across the universe, until we’re in the thick of modern life: there are poems about trains, jets, and rock music, marijuana and beer and tacos. After lunch, so to speak, we journey back outward, and the final sonnets include “The Hubble Constant” and “The Ten Spacetime Dimensional Universe.”

The book has three epigrams. The first epigram, from John Berryman (“—What happen then, Mr. Bones?/—I had a most marvellous piece of luck. I died.”), provides the book with a title and points to an affinity of method: A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck, like Berryman’s Dream Songs, often proceeds by way of interior monologues that, within the warring self, become a back-and-forth dialogue. The second, from Shakespeare (“‘Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished”), nods toward both the book’s preoccupation with death and its many allusions to the canonical figures of English poetry; there are passing quotations (some acknowledged, some not) from Spenser, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Yeats, Frost, et al.

The third epigram (“—Damn, they killed Kenny./—Bastards.”) is drawn from TV, the cartoon South Park. This one, too, is aptly chosen, since the book traffics heavily in pop culture. And there is something particularly cartoonish about its repartee, in which, typically, a wise if somewhat pompous professorial type is ragged by a smart aleck. (I was reminded of those little pitchfork-wielding devils—illustrated imps of the mind—that materialize in thought balloons above a tormented cartoon character’s head.) Here is our professor trying to make a simple, passing metaphor about dinosaurs, and being so often interrupted (in hectoring parentheses) that he apparently fails to complete his thought before he dies:


At the K-T boundary, dinosaurs, whose name,
“Fierce lizards,” comes from (
someategrass), well, yes,
But (
sizeofbunnies), true, but all the same,
They all became extinct, and our best guess

Is that some cataclysmic meteor
Or geo-(
whatabougators?)—no, and as
We saw last week—(
bigcrocs?)—evolved before
Grendel?) What?! (My Lit 1 TA says—)

Until you don the robes for the faculty roast,
The grand old (
whataboubirds?) the old alum,
Having gone the way of disco, Dinah Shore’s
Last film, and all (
likebobwhitebirds?), like most
likecassowaries?) fine, goddammit!, some,
Having gone the way of some
of the dinosaurs.

Most of the book isn’t quite this slapstick, but the poems throughout are light verse, whether one embraces W.H. Auden’s capacious definition in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse (with its emphasis on “the speaking-voice” and “everyday, i.e. social, life”) or the more mandarin standard of Kingsley Amis in his New Oxford Book of Light Verse (with its emphasis on technique: “A fault of scansion or rhyme, an awkwardness or obscurity that would damage only the immediate context of a piece of high verse endangers the whole structure of a light-verse poem”). To say that Williamson is one of the three or four contemporary American masters of light verse may be a less grand pronouncement than it sounds, given how few serious poets these days would aspire to the title. But it’s accurate, even so, and Williamson’s freshness and facility are heartening to behold.

His poetic ancestry seems less in the line of Ogden Nash and Phyllis McGinley than of James Merrill and L.E. Sissman; his light verse is continually verging on the lyrical and weighty. Here is “Easter Island,” in which a spoof on UFO conspiracists finishes as something closer in spirit to Shelley’s “Ozymandias” than to the National Enquirer:

The statues, we now know, were carved in place, then
Transconveyed across (some thirteen tons)
The lonely, trade-wind-whipped terrain by spacemen
Using laser beams (see Williamson’s

The Secret Places of the Lion), but
That’s science, and you contemplate, out there
In mid-Pacific, the obsessive glut
Of clenched jaws and the thousand-mile stare

Until, your excavations at an end,
You see, with peerless eyes, the oblong sun
Go down, and see in your own rocky highland,
Its leaning headstones and the endless wind,
Resigned, enisled, cut off from everyone,
Your kinship with the tribe
of Easter Island.

That lovely pun on “headstones” encourages the reader to look deeper (is “enisled” a play on “annihilation”?), and the pun on “peerless” is better still: these are the unexampled eyes that see everything and nothing at once.

Williamson’s rhymes are likewise dexterous, with a number of unexpected combinations: “work’ll” and “circle,” “tail your” and “failure,” “made are” and “radar,” “finis” and “gin is.” And here and there he comes up with something so neatly preposterous that Byron might have been proud to claim it: “taco” and “cock o’” (as in cock o’ the walk), or (my favorite rhyme in the book) “pyramid” and “reappear amid.”

Cleverness of this high-flying sort can transport a book of light verse quite some distance, but on its own probably would be insufficient to make A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck the success that it is. The book holds up so well, richly repaying rereading, because there’s a somber, eerie iciness at its core. Human mortality is the grim, presiding overseer of these sixty-nine sonnets, though “death” and “dead” rarely appear. Most of the time, dying takes the form of a pop phrase. Casket or graveyard is a “paneled study,” a “singles’ bar,” a “last home game,” the “deal of a lifetime,” a “final exit poll,” a “new groove, a funky soul-rock fusion,” and (in a poem called “Internet”) the “Actual World’s Wide Web of spinneret-/Borne spiders, earthworms, bugs…” These poems have a genuine touch of timor mortis conturbat me (fear of death disturbs me), the phrase from the Latin Office of the Dead that appears as refrain in a number of English medieval poems.

The cartoonlike aspects of A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck reassure us that everything is all right. In the Land of Animation, you can fall off a towering cliff or be flattened by an anvil, sizzle in a bolt of lightning or be encased in a block of ice, and no harm is done; nothing is more comic than indestructibility. And nothing’s more tragic than perishability. Timor mortis… Readers of A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck—this, yes, marvelous book—are now and then disturbingly aware that behind its jokes is an apparition whose skeletal smile is no joke at all.