on Poetry by Amanda Nadelberg and Ruth Ellen Kocher
Songs From a Mountain by Amanda Nadelberg (Coffee House Press)
Third Voice by Ruth Ellen Kocher (Tupelo Press)
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Lately I’ve returned to the fiction of Iris Murdoch. In her 1973 novel The Black Prince, the aging writer-protagonist Bradley Pearson observes, “All art is the struggle to be, in a particular sort of way, virtuous.” This sentence made me pause and gaze out the window for a while. Then I felt like reading some poetry and opened Amanda Nadelberg’s third book, Songs From a Mountain, to encounter the following:
HUSBAND, COMFORT, AFICIONADO
Anticipation don’t emote me from
the mountain, long boiled millennia
calling from the middle of a tender sea
like goldenrod. Austerity waits in the
sun, in seasons for lights to flick on, God,
I’ve arranged what I want a woman to be
continuously sighing don’t do drugs on
me. (I don’t recall whose hair I braided
but I did a fine job.) Jean-Paul Belmondo
played a Ben from second grade with
radioactive likeness. I decided to let
the train get my body to the city that I
eschew but hours a day, how may I direct
your call? Willfully I’m certain now
there is everything and a corresponding
sea. Purple flowers tall as tendency, they
have tickets for the theater. The bed
a painting what do you want from me.
“In a particular sort of way” seems to be the key to Mr. Pearson’s observation. This poem both commands and accommodates. It views sea vistas and tempts sense. The mind is both austere and wavy with information. A woman has been “arranged.” She emits the radioactive likeness of an actual woman and fluctuates therein. She works as a receptionist -- she is receptive. The sea is actual! There is the moderate satisfaction (for her, for us) of knowing that someone or something corresponds to oneself (a sea, a human). There are things aspiring to the world (flowers and culture extending to their full lengths). I’m yours, as such, is the cry from the convention of the marriage bed. She has prepared herself by exercising her virtue, which is to speak freely from a certain idiosyncratic height while descending to answer our calls. In a particular sort of way.
Poets trade in making observations and performing observances: remarks and rites. Watch how they tilt toward one or the other, slightly or abjectly. Some poets, like Nadelberg, emit utterances from the place where the physical and the metaphysical refuse to give an inch to each other. Assessments and orisons. What is the virtue of digging in there as a poet, between the tangible and intangible? Maybe it’s a sonic/runic value that sinks into the ear/eyes before it can be cached as merely understood. The virtue lies in the emphasis, made surprising by Nadelberg’s nimble leaps, on how we understand and not just what we understand.
In “Big Data,” Nadelberg writes, “like porn I wonder if I’m / being impossible in a new / way.” She has mastered a brainy, skewed, comic verve that includes diced memoir – places seen, feelings felt. Family members appear, the ocean reappears. The surreal occasionally yields to statement -- and when it does, the first-person in those moments approximates stability for our sake. In “Done Well”: “Not unlike the wind I was / a sound forced upon itself, / on trial for not having order …” And a fleeting ars poetica in the final lines of “Five-Day Present For Aunt Ollie”:
pay for the whole world to see
what could be done for elegance on
walls of different colors. Novel forms
are over but doubling back on the day
I found patterns. You were of the pattern
on the wind, it fell into our rooms
There are long poems here with extended flights of tone-drained intimacy and finger-poking clarifications that leave one helpless. This is language that describes any facet of as yet untethered thought that may occur in any moment. Songs From A Mountain is filled with the present tense, sketchy situations happening right now requiring explanations for one’s presence – and wild attempts to connect with whatever passes by. “Linear Motor” begins, “I am here for my sister with a voice / like a boat if it wasn’t the first time / someone had given me a present / they wanted.” The boat’s motor-voice. The poem, it turns out, nips at how sound seems to organize experience. She writes, “ever since / procedure there is in me a sea,” ever since one act led to another there has also been the undeniable internal churn bearing on everything. It requires responsibility and virtue. You can plumb this strange commitment at the end of the poem:
It took weeks
to clear up the mess, what I have is my
mouth I think to the women passing.
I still need buttons from the store.
History moves in circumstantial years
as artless practice for later entrance
ports. This is about that. Explanatory
holy work in the depths.
[Published May 3, 2016, 112 pages, $16.00]
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The gratification afforded by a book of poems – the sense that an entire world is present there, maybe comprised of glimpses, overheard remarks, notes taken, but gathered from an undistracted ambit of the surround. Also – the invitation to participate in the book’s assembly, to experience understanding as ever under development.
Ruth Ellen Kocher’s seventh book, Third Voice, offers a world that emerges through the scripts of performances – the tense, staccato, and melancholic “skits,” “folios,” songs and laments of an imagined neo-minstrel show, a lyric drama that samples or portrays philosophers (Burke, Kant, Du Bois), entertainers and icons (Eartha Kitt, Richard Pryor, Pearl Bailey, Paul Robeson), and murdered civil rights heroes (Malcolm X, Emmett Till, Martin Luther King, Jr.). The main cast includes nine created characters with names that underscore the designated identity of captivity, such as Lacy Neva Igga who is referred to as Lacy N. Igga. The nine characters’ speeches sonically vary from the samplings of historical statement.
The show begins as an event on the page – a prologue is intoned over the PA system, a body enters through an opening downstage, a voice speaks. The first skit, titled “Lacy Watches Richard Pryor Talk About Love,” puts the audience on notice: Richard tells his joke about how men restrain their emotions – ”Men hold that shit in like it / don’t hurt them Walk around and get hit by trucks” -- and in the ensuing seconds of what must be laughter, “Lacy touches her chest where the hollow lives Wonders how How anyone survives.” (The skit is set on the page as a block of prose, justified right, with intra-line caesurae spaces, a sudden leap to the facing page in the midst of the joke, and no period at the finish.)
At the end of “Skit: Lacy Teaches the Sublime,” a three-way philosopher’s dialogue, Du Bois is quoted as saying, “The price of culture is a lie.” Third Voice dismantles and reassembles culture into a performance of brokenness and disenfranchisement. At times it is uncertain who is speaking – any character could be addressing us. In a piece called “Conundrum: Somnus 2,” especially pivotal to my reading, the speaker references thunder, a window in a flower shop, lilies, day break and sirens, a Matisse painting – everything conspiring as insufficient to the spirit’s need in some way. The ending: “Why should I tell you for everything’s sake as though you without knowing me could care [space] No one listens to a Woman’s sleep”
The technical virtuosity of Kocher’s work is remarkable, and her hydridization of staged speech and cultural texts creates dissonance that both disturbs and provokes thought. But her demand that language respond to a condition that successfully disempowers language must be frustrated in part. This is one way of hearing Lacy when she says, “What is missing Now makes me.” The narrative difficulties embody the poet’s beckoning generosity as well as her uncompromising withholdings – because to fully enact our moment, a whiff of failure and frustration must linger over the whole, in both the scene and spoken mode:
Skit: Lacy N. Igga’s Outline of Knowledge
The television gives Lacy longing on 36 channels heartbreak on 12
mourning on all the rest sun casts shadows right now sweet late
birds see a moon Lacy dreams on both sides of her bed Her
longing sleeps too Metastasis on the air double noted death and
petunias a third Bug spray fourth The molded murk of rain Drink
as much water as you can Sit straight when you look at the moon at
which the birds do not look Don’t bother counting Blades of grass
will not grow under your feet Lacy’s mother long ago would call All
the children home The summer calls Children come home Lacy
I remember a “Tonight Show” episode from the early 1980’s with George Carlin and Richard Pryor. At one point as they converse, Johnny Carson mentions that his father worked in an office. “That’s so cool,” said Pryor, “My father just was out there on the porch.” [Laughter.] As though you without knowing me could care. The voices of Third Voice, harshly sustained through disrupted contexts, want to be recognized most of all but their distress is intractable, their language exerts itself to keep up. And then, we: “The audience is a gaping jaw from which a sound comes” …
[Published June 1, 2016, 144 pages, $16.95 paperback]