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),…

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