W. W. Norton and Company, Hardback,
110 pages, 978-0393081039, £18.99
Form is certainly a voluntary self-imposition, but it is not simply to be overcome, not only to be transcended: Paul Muldoon wrote that form is a straightjacket only in the sense that it is not to be removed without first being truly worn. Perhaps the best poets are more interested to try the fit of the thing, rather than to slip out of it per se.
On a smaller scale, the same is true of imagery, for as much as any given image is a vehicle of expression, it is also a self-imposed limitation, a challenge – how much can an image be made to communicate? – which, like all challenges, by definition entails both constraint and rebellion, elements of both adventure and imprisonment. As far as Pitch, the witty, curious and crafty second collection by US poet Todd Boss fails or succeeds (and it mostly does succeed), it does so along these lines.
In ‘The God of Our Farm Had Blades’, an old water pump is reimagined as God – or rather, a god: viewed retrospectively, rooted in place and, ultimately, vulnerable:
All our acres
Begged its pardon. Merest
breezes made its rusty flower
turn and whine and shudder.
The metaphor transforms crops into awestruck servants, but it’s not just an old windmill that’s transformed: in the mind of the poet’s young self, something about the way a farm is run assumes a kind of divine significance. And transformation gives way to revelation, for the metaphor affords a glimpse of the young boy’s imagination.
By positing an image of how his younger self saw the world, Boss invites us to extrapolate a sense of that younger self as fertile in imagination, transformative sometimes to the point of mischievousness, or (as in the self-consciously Donne-esque ‘My Love for You is so Embarrassingly’) subject to a knowingly old-fashioned romanticism awed by the world around him. And the dignity which is given to this self-presentation can only suggest that something of the child is thought (with some approbation) to remain in the mind of the man.
It’s these qualities that characterise Pitch at its best. ‘Does a Dog’s, Like a Bird’s, Brain’ is arguably an exercise in Skeltonic lines, assonance, alliteration and repeated internal rhyme (qualities which help link him to a school of poets which includes Jason Guriel and the brilliant Kay Ryan).
But this is just what makes it so good. The poem is interesting because it appears to mischievously acknowledge its idleness, the aimless agility of its argument. This is what’s so bracing about the poem, so engaging: each logical advance becomes a kind of transgression; each audacious line crosses a line in the sand:
Does it resemble,
as a bee’s will seasonally,
the nimblest of digital
buzz-cams whose aims
train on the horizon’s
undulate forms? Or is
one’s dog’s homing
orientation a function
not of brains but of some
burden on the brawn[…]?
‘The World is in Pencil’, one of Pitch’s most memorable poems, skilfully marries language with image: what is expressed clasps hands with the vehicle of expression, and the result is both quite lovely and admirably self-explanatory:
I’ll bet it felt good
in the hand – the o
of the ocean, and
the and and the and
of the land.
‘Plainsong for a Man I Knew’ more or less implicitly posits itself as the poetic equivalent of an early musical form still used in some religious settings, and this works because the poetry does bear some relation to plainsong: for one thing, all the lines are end-stopped, and the solemn repetition (‘He did not convulse. / He did not whimper’) hauntingly recalls the finality of a creed (‘the holy catholic church, / the communion of saints, / the forgiveness of sins’).
But the poetry becomes problematic when Boss writes passionately and with feeling but neglects the implications of imagery or form. The ‘Three Funeral Songs’ seem almost inappropriately titled: nothing about these poems appears songlike, nor indeed so particularly unsonglike as to suggest the title was chosen with anything more than a sideways glance. Titles aren’t, of course, the be-all and end-all; but they do prepare the reader for what is to come, and this title rather seems to lead us off a ledge.
And yet one of the best poems in the collection performs, perhaps, a similar sleight of hand: in the fifth of his ‘Six Fragments for the 35W Bridge’, the familiar obligations of the poem’s purpose are laid aside, but here, knowingly, respectfully, and less completely.
The sequence is part of a 35-piece project to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the August 2007 collapse of the 35W Bridge in Minneapolis, and it must be said that the commemorative poem is a difficult burden, for the poet is implicitly tasked with outliving the moment of loss which it is summoned to sooth. The poet must always be anxious for their work to be of sufficient quality to accompany the memory of the deceased and the act and experience of grief.
‘5’, like many good commemorative poems, opts not at all to remember the deceased in person, but to offer some insight into their passing. The poem springs from the same instant of loss but sets out in a more contemplative direction; by its meditative cohabitation of that instant, it may offer a kind of companionship with the bereaved, which is born of true understanding.
He observes that ‘the / worst / part / of / falling’ is the moments before impact, when the inevitability of death must be confronted. This moment of paralysis is deftly laid alongside the terror of a loved one whose worst fears are hurtling towards them, drawn inexorably towards separation. Boss overlays the approach of death with the onset of loss, granting the deceased and the bereaved a moment of unity and a shared dignity in this moment, when ‘the / worst / part’ is
Okechukwu Nzelu lives in Manchester, where he works for Carcanet Press and PN Review.