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Review in Under the Radar 11: Morgan Harlow’s ‘Midwest Ritual Burning’ and Anne Stevenson’s ‘Astonishment’

(This review first appeared in Under the Radar 11.)

Two collections and more than two voices: Morgan Harlow’s Midwest Ritual Burning; Anne Stevenson’s Astonishment.

I am in Reading Central Library and I am thinking about voice in poems. (This is an example of my voice.) I often suspect voice of being a writing circle cliché, of being too often prefixed by ‘your’, as a vague quality which writers, we’re told, must try to develop. Voice is certainly troublesome as it means somehow to ground language in a source, which is something language, by its nature, is continually trying to resist. In thinking about poems we need, rather, to think about voice from the point-of-view of the reader, and how the reader identifies a voice. For this end, I have two quite different collections from two American poets: Morgan Harlow’s Midwest Ritual Burning and Anne Stevenson’s Astonishment. Midwest Ritual Burning is Harlow’s debut collection; Astonishment is Stevenson’s sixteenth, following (amongst other publications) a Selected Poems edited by Andrew Motion. Midwest Ritual Burning is published by Eyewear Publishing, poet Todd Swift’s new venture; Astonishment is published by Bloodaxe. Even so, in both there is much to consider about what we mean by voice. I’ll start with the younger poet.

The main appearance of voice in the poems in Midwest Ritual Burning is in the intrusions of a distinctively different and unexpected register or tone, especially when this new register is vernacular. For example, to quote all of ‘Hera and Zeus’:

If the moon is an alien searchlight
then his love is like the moon
when he asks her about her love
she answers, dear heart and soul,
we’ll ballast the world with great
chunks of it, so abundant steady
and true is my love for you.

Harlow uses similar devices in ‘Eclogue’ and ‘Man Effigy Burial Mound’. It is perhaps silly to feel speech-like phrases such as “great/chunks of it” or “abundant steady” to be more earnest and heartfelt, but the new voice allows Harlow to transform an over-worn theme (of lovers and the moon) into something unexpectedly powerful. Hera’s voice gives a context and a framework for statements such as “dear heart and soul” and “my love for you”, as dramatic expressions of feeling from one character to another, and makes the moon-ballast all the more weighty as a consequence.

The trouble (and thence the opportunity) in slipping between voices is in the uncertain boundaries between one and the other. In ‘Lancelot Meets Goya Meets Cortázar Meets Mowat’, for instance:

Of course we’d laughed
about it, the little owl
with jagged teeth

our Lance had drawn
beneath the note
that he had writ

to say that he was
doing fine

and not to worry
if he coughed

up mice sometimes,

though he could not
shake it,

this melancholia
and the ache

of knowing
it was much too late

to start anew.

As the poem progresses the voices become increasingly blurred. ‘Lance’ drew the owl, so presumably only Lance can make the joke about coughing up mice – we can imagine Lance writing ‘don’t worry if I cough up mice sometimes’ – and so the speaker is initially relating what Lance wrote; however, after “though he could not/shake it”, we start to doubt if this is some piercing or melodramatic self-analysis of Lance’s, or if this is instead the speaker taking over. If anything, the uncertainty suggests, somewhat paradoxically, that both know but neither have said it, and the judgement (that Lance is unable to shake his melancholy even if he writes a cheery note) floats somewhere, sadly, between the two. “[I]t was much too late//to start anew” is an abstract statement which requires a concrete context to bring it into being, but works best when subsequently set loose like this. It seems that voices in poems are not a rigid ventriloquism but a sort of blurriness, implying a universe but also allowing language some freedom.

Often, in pieces such of these, the only validation of the universe of the poem is that it has come from a single speaker, exploiting, as in ‘Hera and Zeus’, the dramatic context of a voice to incorporate imagery that would otherwise seem wild or distracting. For instance, in ‘The Curse of the Martian Curse’, Harlow writes:

Nighttime skips
through day in a frozen
round of singsong, phonograph
needle riding bumpy
over those Jacques Brel
records you’ve been
storing for your sister
all these years.

The metaphor could have functioned with ‘needle riding bumpy/over a record’, although we can see already how impoverished and tautological this would be. Instead, the speaker’s story allows the poem to also introduce the emotional hit, whatever it may be, of storing records for one’s sister. And it is this validating single voice which enables Harlow’s most effective mode, and the dominant one of the collection, which is the dream poem.

Harlow has a clear influence in surrealist painters, with multiple poems referencing, amongst other things, works by Joan Miró. (Her cultural references are sometimes a little grating, such as in ‘On Halloween’ which pins entirely on the description of a cat as acting “in the manner of Fellini’s Guido riding the back of a whore in ”.) Many of the collection’s poems are primarily visual and follow the private associatory logic of dreams. Some are explicitly dreams or poetic responses to surrealist art. This works particularly well with the long sentences that Harlow commonly employs, as can be seen from the poems quoted above, as they serve to imply connections that otherwise – i.e., without the speaker – don’t exist between images. To quote one last poem of Harlow’s in full, and one greatly indicative of her style, here is ‘Re-Creating Your Postcard’:

You spent a winter week in Québec
chopping wood to warm the cabin
you’d rented from a group of nuns
who spied on your every devotion
until you began to feel like Homer
in Lilies of the Field, the nuns facile

in their communal role of escaped
garden flowers running along the fence
you surround yourself with, stealing
your calm and replacing it with splinters.

It is uncertain if the nuns are flowers or the flowers nuns, and so it is probably best to say that each is each equally. Much of the poem is associatory without being logical, such as “chopping wood” to “the fence” to “splinters”, as the single sentence leads the reader through connections they wouldn’t otherwise accept. Harlow’s dream poems which employ multiple shorter sentences, or ones in which the speaker is unwilling to make associations or include other characters, are rarely as compelling. Similarly to ‘Lancelot Meets Goya Meets Cortázar Meets Mowat’, ‘Re-Creating Your Postcard’ starts with a speaker giving context, moves closely to a character before moving away again to an uncertain place between the two; it is likely that the person in the cabin could think of themselves ‘I feel like Homer in Lilies of the Field’ but not ‘the nuns/flowers are stealing my calm and replacing it with splinters’. The voice is enough for a dramatic context to bring ideas and their associations into being, but not too much as to restrict them. I think this brings together much of what voice means in poetry, and brings out much of Morgan Harlow’s talent in invoking them.

In thinking of voice in Midwest Ritual Burning we mostly see a speaker who is often in an uncertain relationship to her words. Harlow’s style, and dream poems, encourages this, but it produces some tremendous poems. It’s an impressive debut collection, and a great ambassador for a new publisher of poetry which has many more first collections on their way (including that of Caleb Klaces, whose pamphlet All Safe All Well I reviewed in Under the Radar 9).

The idea of striking a balance between voice and language brings us to Astonishment, which begins with an astonishingly accomplished page of Acknowledgments. Anne Stevenson is a well-established poet, and it isn’t surprising to see how common it is, in writing of her work, to mention how she deserves greater recognition. Her traditional and conservative form of the lyric means that her speakers’ voices are particularly straightforward, which gives us a lot of material.

Stevenson starts the poem ‘Epitaph for a Hedonist’ with: “A gay blade in the happy sense of gay”. ‘Gay’, like ‘nice’, has a long and winding etymology, and its different senses can sometimes seem like generational strata: we can imagine it meaning ‘happy’ to the old, ‘homosexual’ to the middle-aged, and (regrettably) ‘bad’ to the young. Stevenson demonstrates how the easiest way to make someone think of pink elephants is to tell them not to think about pink elephants. “[I]n the happy sense of gay” is a particular instance, to which we will return, of a voice’s attempt to get on top of language, although we can either see this as Stevenson’s clumsiness or the speaker’s attempt to invoke the ‘hedonist’s’ time through acknowledging the word’s datedness. It is clear, either way, that the voices in Stevenson’s poems are strong, as she is unafraid to use lines, such as this, that are essentially all speaker and no poem. And by strong, I mean that the speakers are always in a dramatic context, even if they are ‘real’.

The contexts of the speaker include poems dedicated and addressed to people (such as ‘Bird in Hand’, ‘After the Funeral’, ‘Elegy: In Coherent Light’, ‘Caring More Than Caring’) or simply speakers using pronouns to imply a relationship between a speaker and others, or otherwise implying a conversational relationship between the speaker and the reader. (The relationship between speaker and reader is generally implied through rhetorical questions.) These strongly embedded speakers mean that Stevenson writes easily, and unusually well, in dramatic monologues. The penultimate poem, ‘Demeter and her Daughter’, imagines the mythical characters in a world, and a relationship, half resembling a contemporary one, and is particularly good; to quote a few lines:

When, one rainy day in October,
She was gone, I was almost glad.
She did nothing but smoke,
Mope and be rude
When I tried to talk to her.
I love her. I knew she’d come back.
As she still does, summer after summer.

But we should resist only thinking of poems in which the speaker is markedly different from the poet as dramatic monologues; in many of Anne Stevenson’s poems the speaker is Anne Stevenson doing a dramatic monologue as Anne Stevenson, as, for all concerns of the reader and of the poem, it doesn’t matter if the people addressed and the occasions related have ever existed. (This is what I mean by ‘real’.)

An example of this sort of ‘real’ speaker is ‘Teaching My Sons to Swim in Walden Pond’. The title, in the Romantic tradition, suggests the dramatic occasion, cast and setting of the poem. To quote one stanza:

Lesson three has to be about air,
plain air. You think it’s free?
Try breathing when it isn’t there.
You’re spluttering. Can’t speak, can’t see?
Can’t live without air? You’ll have to save it, then.
Breathe in, breathe slowly out, breathe in,
but only when you surface. Yes!
Learn from the otter and the marsh hen
how to steal through water like grease
on a ribbon of silence.

(I have not tried to reproduce her indentation.) As should be plain from the above, much of the poem is taken up by the dramatic element, as “Breathe in, breathe slowly out, breathe in” has no value for a poem other than in the scene. Stevenson’s approach to writing a poem about teaching her sons to swim is to reimagine this dramatically, to make it as if a scene is occurring concurrently to the poem, as if the speaker is to take hold of the element of time. But moving back from this extreme, it is characteristic of Stevenson’s poems to be imagined utterances like this, to be continually addressing someone. This is probably the source of much of her strength – lots of poets suffer from forgetting that a poem is essentially dramatic – but it does give her an easy crutch to fall back on. Something like ‘dramatic revelation of character’ can excuse an awful lot of dud lines, such as in ‘Teaching My Sons to Swim…’:

[…]Before dark
we’ll need to put our clothes on,
pick up our picnic litter, towels and toys
and head for the car park.

In some of these poems it does feel like we are only staying around to listen for when the speaker finally comes out with a cracker like “steal through the water like grease/on a ribbon of silence”.

One thing we often forget, in thinking of poems where the character of the speaker is the same as the poet, is whether our response to that character is relevant to our response to a poem. Do we like the character of Demeter seems relevant to thinking about ‘Demeter and her Daughter’, but do we like the character of Anne Stevenson feels unjust in thinking about ‘Teaching My Sons to Swim…’, even if both are equally relevant to our enjoyment of and the success of the poems. And, as an example for us to think about, I should confess that in many of the poems of Astonishment I am mildly irked by the character of Anne Stevenson. Perhaps this is a generational thing, as suggested by my discussion of her line about “the happy sense of gay”, but her tone is, explicitly on occasion, one of affected stuffiness and often overbearing. There is, for instance, something uncomfortable and clumsy in the social commentary of the closing lines of ‘Not a Hook, not a Shelf, maybe a Song?’:

I hope it’s love these shopping faces dream of,

Hungry Miss Pink Hair with her iPod ear;
Sad Mrs Pushchair, pregnant every year.

(In our discussion of voices and characters, it is interesting, very briefly, to think of the characters whose voices are excluded. To be reduced to “Mrs Pushchair” is to have your voice deliberately excluded, as the speaker moves to speaking on your behalf. Of course “Mrs Pushchair” would never necessarily be included in a poem, but we can be sure she wouldn’t view herself so objectively and reductively.)

A similar attitude is expressed in ‘On line’, which relates the poet sitting on the train with some young people using their computers or mobiles, and discusses the gulf between this and the world of the poet, with her “never-read-before Middlemarch,/[…]about as compatible/with the way we live now as trilobites with kilobytes.” I suspect I will always disagree with this sort of sentiment, but it feels rather self-conscious, as if the speaker Anne Stevenson is too deliberately creating the character of Anne Stevenson. (Of course, all poets are fashioning a self-image in their poems, but some are a little more self-conscious in doing so.) Even so, she is far too humane and complex and able a poet to dislike for long. The closing lines of ‘On Line’ are terrific:

Sunset. A star from a gash in the fire-coloured clouds
shone bright as an eye through our ghostly reflections.
Then night gave us all, complete in ourselves, to the glass.

Further, Astonishment contains some of the best phrases and lines that I have read in a single collection, wearing them as frequently and as generously as if they were easy. There are few poets operating with her technical facility being published today. And so, since she is an established poet on her 16th collection, I am probably judging Stevenson on a separate set of criteria to Morgan Harlow, which is perhaps unfair, but I think many of the poems in Astonishment display a failure of voice, in that they show a poet with tremendous technical skill who is unable to give language some freedom. Unlike the poems of Morgan Harlow the source of Stevenson’s voices is never in doubt and her speakers are never plural, which means that it is hard for them to express anything beyond themselves. This is limiting, and any amount of technical skill will not make up for it.