photo by: Ginny
photo by: Ginny

Maureen N. McLane’s Seven Poets on the Verge

When Vela invited me to contribute a piece on emerging women writers, I jumped at the chance—this past year has found me thrilling to the work of a host of women writers, both emerging and long established. I’ve decided to write on those poets who have most impressed and moved me, and who haven’t yet found a mass audience—though what poet, beyond Maya Angelou, finds a mass audience?—because poetry often gets the short end of the stick in reviews, and because these writers are great, and they deserve a large readership.

My only regret here is that I wasn’t able to write about everyone I wished to: for example, Bhanu Kapil (read her astonishing Ban en Banlieu); the terrific poet and translator Chana Bloch (writing the poems of her life in her eighth decade); Tess Taylor (whose second book, Work and Days, is due out this spring); and MC Hyland (whose work has appeared in several chapbooks and in magazines, including Grey, and who founded her own small press, DoubleCross, publisher of handmade poetry chapbooks). I hope you will look up their work, and that you will have a chance, as well, to explore the work of these poets:
 

  1. Tonya Foster

Tonya Foster has just published a remarkable first book, A Swarm of Bees in High Court. Simultaneously taut and expansive, Foster’s poetry offers a multivocal, intense portrait of Harlem—“a biography of life in the day of a particular neighborhood.” Intricately pressured tercets—haiku-like notations, songs, vignettes, observations, prayers, curses and retorts—structure many of the poems; we move from insomniac meditations through the erotic charge of courtship to the complex social beat of the basketball court to the back-and-forth overheard on the street, sometimes beckoning, sometimes threatening. The book enacts a stunning modulation between inner zones of consciousness and an ongoing hum of (sometimes remembered) dialogue and counterpointed speech:
 

You’d think a woman
would know this, she thinks. This thought
       a squirrel on a lawn.

You’d think a woman
       —these are thoughts of other women.
More squirrels.
 

Foster’s is an art of voicing-as-thinking, of evocation and permutation. Hers is an art, too, of the closest sonic and writerly attention: microshifts in phrase and punctuation open up worlds of difference, revision, and rethinking en route—
 

Blind puddle that was
little boy’s blood, cold water
and Mr. Clean clean.

“Blind puddle that was
chance for movie chivalry”—
       sunlight dries this thought.
 

Extracts can only begin to suggest the concision, precision, and kinetic energy of Foster’s poetry—and its striking range. (Listen to Foster read here.) Her work exemplifies the social basis of lyric itself (though accounts of lyric often suppress this): the supposedly singular song is here made out of a weave of “private” thought and swarming voices. The descriptive evocations here are near-Imagist in their luminous precision, the meditation on being (bee-ing/b-balling/etc) throughout is rich in philosophical commitment as well as linguistic playfulness. A vernacular Heideggerian invocation launches the second “Harlem Nocturn/e/s”:
 

As beings,       come, dance
       each evening’s fractal glitches.
Hear, here,                 hope’s hustle.

As being comes dawn
       ing, each fearsome fucking glance
hacks into being.
 

This is a tough, gorgeous, complex book, about many things—tenderness, harassment, death baked into the asphalt, incessant noise, media glut, contending voices, the theater of the street, the gauntlet women run on the street, the voices we carry in our minds, the vibrations of desire and “want” that everywhere thrum. Foster is a flagrantly talented poet and thinker: This is the launch of a terrific career.

 

  1. Sarah Howe

The Hong-Kong born British poet Sarah Howe has had an annus mirabilis: Her first book, Loop of Jade, won the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize (the first time this award went to a debut collection) as well as The Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year Award. Howe has become (in the U.K., if not [yet] in the U.S.) that unlikely thing, the poet as media sensation. This is, in one sense, surprising, for Howe’s work is precisely not sensational—defiantly uninterested in the fast, cheap, or easy response.

Howe’s Loop of Jade is an intense, intricate, sophisticated, moving work of meditation, remembrance, and presencing: It is beautifully, artfully structured (featuring poems prompted by one of Jorge Luis Borges’ brilliantly ludic confections, a list supposedly taken from “a certain Chinese encyclopedia”), and astonishing in its range and command. Howe’s poems, in some ways, manifest what Susan Stewart has called “lyric possession”: she allows herself to be possessed by—even as she shapes—voices, phrases, forms, historical and personal complexities. Extraordinary poems (including the title poem) channel her Chinese mother’s speech and experience—her difficult childhood in mainland China and then Hong Kong; others touch on Howe’s own early childhood in Hong Kong and her return there as a young adult (watch “Crossing from Guangdong,” a poem Howe recites wonderfully from memory). “I can never know this place,” Howe writes of her mother’s childhood home, “Its scoop of rice in a chink-rimmed bowl, its daily thinning soup.” Howe moves easily between austere lyric and sustained narration, between scenes in contemporary Cambridge (U.K.) and Chinese fables, between portrait and etymology (as in her poem “Banderole”). Of a Bonnard painting: “Mustard flashes/ wildly up the wall; the mirror/ is a locked garden.” From “Chinoiserie”: “I said Sleepy Willow. You said Voiture./ / That was one of our shorter arguments.”

Howe has, we might say, a philological imagination: there is an intriguing way in which she is offering a kind of counter-poetics to Ezra Pound, who productively (if idiosyncratically and sometimes maddeningly) raided Chinese as well as Greek and Provençal and Anglo-Saxon poetries for his own project of reconstructing poetries in English. Consider Howe’s “(l) Others”:
 

I think about the meaning of blood, which is (simply) a metaphor
and race, which has been a terrible pun.

*

From castus to chaste, with a detour for caste . . .

*

A personal Babel. A muddle. A Mendel?
Some words die out while others survive. Crossbreed. Half-caste. Quadroon.
 

Howe offers a palimpsest of inheritances and possibilities—familial, trans/national, literary, linguistic. Her poems are both intellectually rigorous and sensuous—a most unusual combination.

Howe is a scholar of Renaissance literature as well as the founding editor of Prac Crit, a great online journal which features poets, poems, interviews and essays; she has obviously thought long and hard about the place of the poet (and of poetry) in society. Her range is vast—from early imperial China to the aftershocks of Tiananmen to the case of Pound, jailed as a traitor in Italy, starting to write what became known as the Pisan Cantos. Extremely funny and tender poems punctuate the book, as in “Sucking pigs,” the wittiest sonnet about a “mixed” marriage I’ve ever read. Howe has enormous powers of invention and registration—her poems variously feature glittering images, dialogue, monologue, ekphrasis; and several poems are in fact “in prose.” This is a dazzling debut whose impact will most likely be fully registered only after some years.

Many have lauded (and a few have enviously or noxiously carped about) Loop of Jade for its blasting open of the rather straitened horizons of much contemporary poetry in the U.K. If in the U.S. there is a longstanding, vital conversation about what Cathy Park Hong has called “the poetry of social engagement,” this conversation—including the relation of “poetry” to “identity”—is perhaps not as developed in official literary discourse in the U.K. So, too, it seems that the truly singular combination of so-called “experiment” and “tradition” in Howe’s book is less typical for U.K. poetries than those in the U.S. For its formal and socio-historical imagination, as well as its formidable intelligence and linguistic command, Howe’s work stands at the forefront of new poetries in English.

 

  1. Alice Lyons

Alice Lyons, the American poet, essayist, filmmaker, and curator, has just returned to the U.S. after eighteen years in Ireland. Lyons has a wonderfully bi- or tri-focal perspective on poiesis—on “making,” in its broadest sense—and her several inheritances (American, Irish, and European) make themself felt in her forthcoming book, The Breadbasket of Europe (out March 2016). Breadbasket is both lyrical, in the traditional sense, and conceptual. (Lyons’s title is, by the way, a common epithet for Ukraine.) Throughout the work, Lyons dynamizes the page itself—at times it functions as a field, other times it seems a screen, still other times, a “page,” as one might conventionally understand it, a surface for print.

Breadbasket contains a remarkable long section, “furthermore New York,” (where we trace—among other things—the poet-emigrant’s earlier brief return to the U.S.). The book features episodes in Ireland and a section, “Fell,” that tracks the poet’s own ancestry and “fallings” (we might say) through generations of women: this particular movement culminates in a wonderful section in which a grandmother’s handwriting moves boldly, touchingly and perhaps a bit pathetically across the page. “Furthermore New York” offers a strong and surprising turn on family inheritance, U.S. and Irish relations (in all senses), linguistic cruxes, what’s traced and traceable. Breadbasket is especially concerned, then, with migrations, personal and transpersonal; the book is punctuated in its last movement (the “Whaling Log” episodes) by a rollicking Melvillean sea-voyage—which reminds us that the Pequod was itself a ship of many nations and voices.

Lyons’ extensive and intensive work in poetics, video, criticism, animation, and the archive mark her as a most unusual artist, scholar and curator. Her work in all registers is delicate, cumulatively powerful, at times elusive, yet also coherent in its means and preoccupations: the feel of the contemporary, the question of place and identity, how to map oneself and others, how to inscribe—provisionally—a place, or simultaneities of placings. (Read—and hear her read—her poem, “Developers.”) Lyons wrote an impressive PhD thesis (soon to be a book) on the experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton—and there she argued that Frampton achieved a lyricization of cinema. Her own work in Breadbasket suggests a cinematics of lyric, with its discrete yet related sequences, its montage-like compositional logic. Look for this work, and for more from Lyons, soon.

 

  1. Erica McAlpine

Erica McAlpine’s The Country Gambler will be published in 2016. Now based in Oxford (she teaches at Keble College), the Atlanta-born McAlpine is a dazzlingly accomplished formalist—and lest you think that means “dry” or “old-fashioned,” let me be clear: Her work is filled with brio and wit, as well as open to strains of melancholy—
 

I will tend
the garden, but
really I am
waiting

for autumn. (“September”)
 

In other words, she’s a lyric poet, simultaneously old-school and contemporary. (You can read some of her work here and here.) A powerful intelligence animates this work, with a maturity of perspective striking in a younger poet. There is something of Marianne Moore in her scrupulously observed animals, her dexterities: “Blessed with his six jumbo-sized shoulders, the land/hermit crab knows the art of the hunch.” Many poems here are in sapphics, the stanza form most famously deployed by Sappho; others take wing from Horace’s Odes. Erudition and technical bravura here give life and form to life. McAlpine is a wizard of syntax—something few contemporary poets are:
 

If we’d sailed here on a boat, and not this bus,
perhaps you could love – we could love together –
so blue a bay, tucked down under rocky hills,
and those salt-white bluffs.            (“Corinth”)
 

These poems evoke animals, plants, erotic predicaments, seasonal shifts of inner and outer weather, impending motherhood; most of all, they conjure a sensibility—alert, discriminating, sympathetic, sometimes mordant, profoundly responsive, classically romantic, romantically classical.

 

  1. Robin Beth Schaer

A few years ago, I met Robin Beth Schaer at an artist’s residency; there I first heard her read her strong, moving work, which I followed ever since, happily contributing an endorsement (which I draw on here) once her book was ready for publication. Schaer’s long-awaited first book, Shipbreaking, offers both catalogue and hymn. Swooping between the history of human flight and the upsurges of continents, between the migrations of birds and the igniting of love, Schaer toggles between the cosmic and the intimate, weaving a tapestry of gorgeous, sometimes painful, interconnectness. Schaer is alert both to the rawness of the elements and the work of human hands.

Shipbreaking has a special force and pathos arising from Schaer’s own work on the tall ship, Bounty, which sank off the coast of North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy. Schaer’s book is—among many other things—a hymn to that time of communal work aboard ship, the pleasures of tough mastery at sea, the confraternity/consorority of those who sail together. The book is also an elegy for that terrible loss. Schaer moves easily between the specific and the cosmic. Her poetry charts a natural history that includes us, but not only us. She writes especially beautifully of new motherhood with a kind of expansive, yet austere, ecological consciousness. The child unfurling in the womb, the city flooded in storm, the ship lost at sea: Schaer registers all with a winning combination of gorgeous gaud and stark specificity. Her poems conduct the materiality of this world, its “kevlar, duct tape,/ and prayer,” its bees, coelocanths, and human infants; the constellations beyond and the power of the seas. Though this is Schaer’s first book, it feels like the assured work of a mid-career poet who has fully achieved her style. And the opening out of her most recent poems suggests wide and surprising horizons ahead.

 

  1. Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Sometime last year the renowned poet, scholar, and art critic Susan Stewart sent me a poetry manuscript Princeton University was about to publish. This was my first introduction to the work of Fiona Sze-Lorrain, whose book I found so compelling I wrote a blurb for it. As I said there, “In the beginning was silence. Fiona Sze’s poems honor this, ‘trying to measure/ a quiet too pure/ and transparent for humans.’” The Ruined Elegance exemplifies a poetics of translation, of cultural attunement, cross-pollination, aeration. Born in Singapore, educated in the U.S. and France, Sze-Lorrain lives in Paris and publishes poems in English; she is also, crucially, a translator, editor, and a zheng harpist. Hers are poems of delicate ferocity; they seem to emerge from a profound, yet whiplashed, attentiveness. As she writes in the title poem:
 

I want to honor
the invisible. I’ll use the fog to see white peaches.
 

Sze-Lorrain modulates easily between metaphysics and the sensuously concrete. She registers the subtlest vibrations of the most difficult as well as the tenderest things—20th-century atrocities make themselves felt in a gesture in a prison, a buried book, “a revolution in the draft” of a feather. (“Write is to stay at the crime scene from the start.”) Also here: contemporary Chinese poems, paintings, traces of Bach, the eddies of sociable chat, “the last Manchurian sky,” the color of rain. Shards of elegy, lament, intermittent flashes of humor, a philosophical sensuality throughout: this is subtle, sophisticated, gorgeous and unsettling work by a poet open to being “torn by the lyric” as well as by history. Sze-Lorrain aims “to get silence right”: She does. In a world of noise and perpetual chat, this is decidedly something else.

 

  1. Fiona Wilson

Fiona Wilson is a poet I’ve long admired, and my comments here draw on some thoughts I shared with publisher last year, once I heard her first book was about to be published. As I wrote then, Wilson is the terrifyingly real thing, the real McCoy/McKay, as the Caledonian muse would have it. A native Scot, Wilson has lived and worked in New York City for some 25 years; she teaches at Sarah Lawrence. Her first book, A Clearance, is just out: It is scandalously overdue, for this is a major talent whose linguistic and cultural range (perhaps too Scottish for mainstream American verse, but too American for U.K. readers) had suspended her work, I think, somewhere over the ocean. Time for us to join her there and fly with her. One hears in her work a vital, strange, yet instantly authoritative music, as well as a massive intelligence. Her work is simultaneously cosmopolitan and deeply grounded—whether in Scottish diction and landscape or in American vistas and slang. Hers is a vibrant, sexy, swerving poetry, lyrics that lash equally the ear, heart, and mind.

Channeling birdsong, the hum of rivers, “the mad shush/ of sound” from the Highlands to the Hudson River, Wilson’s poems are gorgeous and perfected distillations. Completely contemporary, yet alive to the enchantment of auld sang, careering through Scotland and London as well as New York City, Wilson’s A Clearance is surprising, gripping, fleet. These are wily and wild poems, mercurial, melancholy, ebullient. They sing of Victorian Scotland and the 21st-century city; they sing most of a mind made in sound, on the wing, yet tautly bound.

Ferocity, romance, wit: Wilson’s poems arise from a musical, ingenious “ziggety-zagging” mind that charts its own course and traces its own seductions. The poet concludes “Grace”:
 

Oh, if I had a speck
       of the wit I once had,
I’d have known how to speak,

I’d be fluent at last.
 

This poet is nothing if not fluent. Yet she is not only fluent—she is deep feeling, witty, plangent. She immerses us, throughout A Clearance, in “this feckless rash,/ this flaming sleeve of words.”

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