Poets have become so inventive at framing their work, it often seems as if a new book of poetry must have a gimmick of some kind in order to make itself heard. Book-length historical narratives. The re-interpretation of a comic strip. A book whose poems take their form from the dictionary, another that is a dismantling of the encyclopedia. While innovation is undoubtedly an innate aspect of all artistic development, this particular hunger for framing devices seems an appetite most enthusiastically embraced by poets of a younger generation. And it should be lauded—there is a wellspring of poetic creativity issuing through our culture, and it draws not just from experimentation at the level of language, but from a deep structural ingenuity. It is all the more refreshing then, in a culture of such show-and-tell, to find a book that captivates simply by its adherence to what might be called the more traditional modes of poetic thought.
Jennifer Grotz’s second book of poetry, The Needle, wears its grandeur quietly. A sampling of titles from the book’s first section offers nothing beyond the objects at hand: “The Icon,” “The Pearl,” “The Sidewalk,” “The Staircase.” And a short list of titles from the book’s following two sections suggests an almost classical inclination: “Landscape with Osprey and Salmon,” “He Who Made the Lamb Made Thee,” “Audbade,” “Love Poem with Candle and Fire.” The book’s subjects range from poems of place (Krakow; Provence; West Texas) to elegies for the poet’s brother, from poems of lost love to ekphrastic interpretations of paintings by Italian masters. Yet out of such “traditional” fabric, Grotz weaves a unique texture of language that is patient as it is fierce, assertive in the constant reconsideration of its own utterance.
The book itself begins in mid-thought, an ellipses in the title poem that leads seemingly into the open space of the mind:
. . . Thought lengths it, pulls
an invisible world through
a needle’s eye,
one detail at a time,
the glint of blond down
on his knuckles as he
crushed a spent cigarette—
The invisible world is memory, and these poems achieve the immediacy of that space through imagery that is lush, minutely detailed, delivered at an unhurried pace:
I can see that last strand of smoke
escaping in a tiny gasp—above the table where
a bee fed thoughtfully
from a bowl of sugar.
World of shadows! where
his thumb lodged into
the belly of an apple,
then split it in two,
releasing the scent that exists
only in late summer’s apples
as we bit into
rough halves flooded with juice.
There is a confidence here that betrays nothing of the investment in ego. It is a confidence in the expressive capabilities of language, in the fullness of the world that speaks through patience and meditation. Because Grotz herself has lingered, we too wish to spend as much time as possible here, turning back once the poem is done to experience the fullness of that space again.
The Needle invests that same quality of measured consideration when it turns its gaze upon the world. Grotz’s poems set in Krakow create an experience of inhabiting that city, “traversed / as if it could be conquered by touch,” in a way no American poems yet have. The book’s first section investigates the dynamic relationship between self and city, turning from “the mirabilia of the square”–objects that seem to exist simply for the pleasure of our inspection (“the soap blowers wave wands long as fishing poles, / Gingerly releasing the huge trembling globes / Which rise fiery and iridescent like souls” (“Landscape with Town Square”))–to “the mind on the staircase / at the end of the day” reconsidering its litany of witnessed things: “a pigeon, was that one? The old man toppling / in the street? The smell of lindens at four in the afternoon?” (“The Staircase”). Here, too, we experience the cacophonic interplay of thought and sense as the self encounters and finds itself one with the world it attempts to describe:
yes, you too waited at the intersection
and faced the crowd across the street,
and when the light changed all of you
walked into each other
like a shuffling deck of cards
and the city became a feeling, an intricate thing
that could be expressed only with its entire self.
Part of the allure of The Needle is that its fullness springs from no other recognizable source than what might be termed “pure” poetic impulse—Grotz gives herself (and her readers) permission to explore and renew modes that are often considered tired or cliché. Particularly stirring are the poet’s elegies for her dead brother, and, although there are only five poems dedicated to him, the presence of these elegies permeates the entire book. As if in balance to the lush description of the streets of Krakow, these wrenching lines are conveyed with an unwavering flatness of tone:
After my brother died, I stared out the window.
Then I opened the front door
and looked into the street. There was no use
eating, eating was for fools.
I took a vacation. I went to an island
to think about dying. I drank a bottle of wine.
Then I admitted I knew it would happen:
he had been wild and hurt and so lost
no one could have saved him.
But not until it did
was it obvious
my mother would also die.
And so would my father. Which is why I wept:
I would be the last one.
The poems branch beyond thematic considerations of place and elegy as they move into the book’s final section. A woodstove sparks a meditation on the nature of humanity and the drive to create: “What is it to be human? To forge connection, // to make interpretations of fire and contain them / in a little iron stove? (“The Woodstove”). A mountain climb prompts investigation of the soul: “I started more slowly, / immersed now in what you might call searching the soul, / not that the soul is a bright red ball / that bounces into the tall grass of a sloping field / but rather the field itself…” (“The Mountain”). And the sight of wild ponies stirs recognition of the shifting nature of attention, the way the mind finds its way to the world again and again: “But it isn’t dream, that place / your mind drifts to…it’s not even sleeping. / It is the nature of sleeping to be unaware. / This was some kind of waiting for the world to come back” (“The Ocracoke Ponies”).
Traditional, perhaps, but any critique of tradition begs analysis of the strengths from which that tradition formed. The eye altering alters all, wrote Blake, and what Grotz achieves in revisiting what in other hands might have grown commonplace or expected is a clarity of attention and perception that offers readers what Czeslaw Milosz called the “full amazement at being here.” It is like the season described in “Late Summer” that “specializes in time, slows it down almost to dream,” or like the water in “Most Persons Do Not See The Sun”:
When you stroked absent-mindedly toward the one place
still too deep to touch bottom, you interrupt the confetti of blossoms
the current carries on its surface, the leaves it carries below.
And when it glitters like this it’s impossible
to take one’s eyes off the water, one is always
glimpsing something just escaping, to love water is to love
light, the sun that beats down and ignites the leaves from within.
- Let It Come - August 19, 2014
- Slow Almost To Dream: A Review of The Needle by Jennifer Grotz - April 4, 2013