[This is the continuation of my post on PBS Winter Books. Part One, on Jane Hirshfield's After, is here.]
I was quite pleased with the beginning of my reading project, then, and was quite hopeful as I moved on to Tiffany Atkinson's Kink and Particle. I applied the same procedure: read fast; pay attention; wait for the poems to slow me down. The result was quite different: early in Hirshfield's book, "Hope: An Assay" had slowed me down and drawn my attention to themes that were then developed in later poems in the book. No such luck with Atkinson.
As I thought back on the book before I began writing this up, I could only remember one poem that had struck me, although I could not remember its title: "Photo from Belfast." The fourth poem in the book, it seemed much stronger than the first three, and when I just looked for an on-line publication of it, I discovered that it won the 2001 Academi Cardiff International Poetry Competition. It is a fine poem, with these opening lines:
I knew him, the dead boy, Michael.
Only for three hours, maybe, taken in all.
He stopped me for a light outside my local—
I fell for the accent, the smile.
But now, as I look at it again, it seems like a fine, competent poem on a strong, powerful theme—where it is the theme, as it were, that makes it a strong poem, rather than the writing itself. So what made it stand out for me when I read the book was that, suddenly, the contents of a poem struck me, but if it weren't for those contents, I would have read on, following my principle of "read fast."
Later in the book, there are two further poems I noted: "Testimonial: Iscariot" and "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1625." I remember thinking, as I read them, that these poems seemed like they might have been written as exercises—which I did not mean as a criticism of the poems, but simply as an observation. Perhaps it was again the distinction between these two and most of the other poems I had read so far: the rest seemed to be about the poet's life, and the writing wasn't making them lift off, while these two were not about the poet's life or something resembling her life (the first of them being a tightly written consideration of Judas; the second an ekphrastic poem about Rembrandt's famous painting), so they were able to lift off. In a sense, at this point, Atkinson seemed to be a poet who was good enough to write well about historical, social, and cultural themes, but not quite good enough to make more "everyday" poems that would go beyond their contents alone.
So I read on, waiting for the poems to slow me down again. Suddenly, the everyday worked, perhaps because the scene described is not actually everyday:
THEN EVERYTHING WAS AXE
Too late in the day, with
(what were we thinking of)
no tent, thunder scuffing
the tips of the hills, we found
that somewhere between the deep
drop down and setting up camp
in an ingrown fold of the cwm,
we'd left behind, mislaid, let
fall or otherwise failed to keep tabs
on the axe. Then everything was
axe: the eighth, ninth, tenth
unstitching of our steps, the pooling heat
and pegged-out sky, each sheaf of grass
each bush turned inside-out ... Forget
the quietly perspiring Sémillon,
the raunchy steaks we brought
to toast ourselves, the single heron
pitched like once-in-a-lifetime
at horizon, and the freestyle (what
were we thinking of) sex. Just axe's
invisible plumb-line drawing it all
down like awning, grinding
on the conscience, like last words,
distilled to purest form, the shape
Without it, out there, we had
all the personal resourcefulness
of berries. Would you believe I
was searching my own back pocket
when your cry struck out? The palpable
click of a clean fit, of hickory heft
and honed wedge to the shape
hewn inwardly of old-style need,
then world springing back on its axis.
Typing in that poem was a great pleasure, feeling the lines building up the psychological situation. At the same time, it struck me that the poem, however strong it is, lacks one thing many of Hirshfield's poems have: phrases and lines that one can pull out of the poem and have stand on their own. It's not something I require a poem to have, but it is something that many poems do have. At this point in reading Atkinson's book (page 37 of 62), I had not underlined a single phrase, simply noted the poems that I have mentioned here.
And as I read on, no lines grabbed me, and no other poems seemed to take off in anything like the way that "Then Everything Was Axe" does. Atkinson's poetry may have no false notes, and I knew, from that one poem, that she could leave me breathless, but I was waiting for her to do it again, and there were no themes developing in the course of the book, either, as there had been in Hirshfield.
One more poem stopped me, though, enough to type it in:
COCKEREL-MAN AND THE ROYAL DONKEY DUCK
's what sir was, yomping up from the street
three sheets downstream and real medieval
arsefaced on his hobby-frog, ohlorday aint
nobody like him for a blue steam. Duchess!
he piped through the moon's horn, hair like yours
grows twice in a lifetime and your lipbones how
they seize me. Then he fuzzed from the head down,
swinging on my neighborhood's perpendicular. Open
your smile my mouse, cried he, quite the rivergreen
elvis at that angle, be my spiff and I'll raddle
your bud for good. Yes truly. Thus his pageant
hooked its barrel to the wind. And oh my offal
gan glow tender (albeit known better on the back-
look) for the bold highriding and the heartwhip
and, it must be said, his droll feet. It was close,
as garlic. But. I wheened, you strike the same tune
off the flint of cold day and I'll kindle. End of.
Though it seems to be he's sheer carouse and no thumb.
Where he pearled is only what the wind shook up four
days since. Dropsy crops, they say, blow all stalk.
I don't think I would want to read a whole book in this style, but it does seem like something one should pursue for more than one poem, and it seems quite striking to have this language appear near the end of a collection, a total shift in style and tone.
And finally, one line I underlined (of three in all in the whole book), in the next-to-last poem, "Hey Love—": "You use language like a wanker's handkerchief." More of that, more of the cockerel man, stronger occasions for poems—then Atkinson will write some much stronger books in the future. Not a bad first book at all, but it's still a bit of a surprise that it was a Recommendation, given that the "other books available this quarter" list included such names as Elizabeth Bishop, Jack Gilbert, Louise Glück, Michael Longley, Michael Schmidt, Frederick Seidel, and C. K. Williams (not to mention my Basel friend Padraig Rooney, with his The Escape Artist).
[This discussion continues: Part Three, on Cynthia Fuller's Jack's Letters Home, Part Four, on John Fuller's The Space of Joy.]