The Cortland Review

Debra Allbery
"The Third Image": Constellations of Correspondence in Emily Dickinson, Joseph Cornell, and Charles Simic, an essay on ekphrastic poetry and the notion of poetry and painting as "the sister arts."

Debra Allbery
Three ekphrastic poems: "Courbet," "No Tutor but the North," and "How to Explain a Dead Hare."

Betty Adcock
Charles Coté
Martyn Crucefix This marks an author's first online publication
Burt Kimmelman
Eric Pankey
Michael Salcman
Nicholas Samaras This marks an author's first online publication
Jim Tilley
Gloria Vando
Eleanor Wilner

A Note on Fictional Truth, a Conversation with Ed Pavlić, by Andrew John McFadyen-Ketchum.

Book Review
"A Change of Maps" by Carolyne Wright—Book Review, by David Rigsbee.

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of six collections, most recently Cloud Journal (Turning Point, 2008). His The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems will be published in the fall by NewSouth Books.
"A Change of Maps" by Carolyne Wright – A Book Review


A Change of Maps
by Carolyne Wright
112 pages
Lost Horse Press, 2006

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Carolyne Wright starts her new collection of (mostly) first-person, autobiographical poems with a humdinger about studying with Elizabeth Bishop when the latter found herself forced to seek employment teaching at the University of Washington, her prelude to a series of gradual declensions ending in her death ("the dropped telephone at Lewis Wharf"). Asthmatic, alcoholic ("she staggered past me, unseeing, one April afternoon"), she appears in implicit contrast to the ghost of the equally alcoholic, huffing Theodore Roethke, in the environment of whose "mythic maniacal/ dolor" she toils, "a scarf of pure froth floating at the throat of her/ Bonwit Teller suit." Bishop's hallmark good sense is not to be found here: "One Art" is still a ways in the future.

Wright, by composing a poem that draws attention to the indirect, often slippery nature of literary pedagogy, unobtrusively assumes a place in the line of succession, after the demise of these great talents—and great egos (something her work betrays little sign of). Not for Wright the Roethkean dolor or Bishopian Weltanschang: "Still/ Zen's empty bowl runneth over. Awful? Yes! But cheerful!" Yet the lack of ego's torque probably goes some distance in explaining the occasionally solicitous posture of these poems, as they move through event and memory, balancing homage with gentle self-assertion. Don't get me wrong: this poet has radar for the boundaries of immodesty and never strives (pace Bloom) agonistically. That wouldn't do. When the poems get into the zone—and a great many do—they require no solicitude.

"Studies with Miss Bishop" provides a foundational shot, as it both applies Bishop's lessons and brings up the subjects that will be Wright's own: the past, the present coordinates, how divergence is the shape of time, and the importance of origins. It also brings into focus a still-rippling question: how it is possible for an American poet, lodged between classical inclinations but reared on rock and roll, the Sixties, and Bad Boys, to make a gradus ad parnassum so that doing so does not result in just another homemade American destiny, privatized into anonymity. A standard reading suggests that the poet hunkers down for some long winter, her work packed with irony's insulation from the very demotic energies that initially propelled it and that constitute one of her topic areas. This would put her in a continuum where it is fair to say many poets have submitted their life's works in the hopes that they will have flown under the radar while everything else that used to be art falls under culture's commodifying, totalitarian blade. The question is whether the poet participates in and attempts to modify (in her favor) the irony that taste and vision automatically meet in their journey across the U. S. of A.

Bishop's ambition found its objective correlative in her master metaphor—cartography, that is, knowledge derived from coordinates. The cartographic imagination can also move readily to the moral, as well as the aesthetic sphere. Here, one may note Stevens' ghostly demarcations and Keats' sensations beside Bishop's gridlines, although Sevens' sensibility would find little difference between the aesthetic and the moral. By contrast, Lowell devalued the poetry of fact in deference to that based on "imagination," and in doing so was rephrasing a distinction made familiar by Keats, who wished, contra Lowell, for a life of "sensations rather than thoughts" and why not? Such a life would never have the need to raise, as Wright has it, "basilisk-lidded grey eyes to the dazed/ clutch of undergraduates clustered in the same Parrington Hall/ classroom where Roethke had blazed . . ." Wright sides with Keats over Lowell: life rather than (merely!) something imagined. And yet her imagination, like Bishop's, redresses facts and their rebarbative edges, shape-shifting through art's chastening forms—and therefore providing a kind of compensation with the way life evolves, while memory devolves into discontinuities of meaning. As for Bishop, defensiveness and denial after the clink and heigh-ho of old money become another way of life, a come-down grudgingly accepted,

First of all, I don't like teaching, but the trust
fund ran out—exhausted—so we'll make the best
go of it we can.

Just so, we might say. The book's title signals both adoption of purpose and a departure from the teacher. This theme is again taken up in the title poem, one that references one of Bishop's key poems, "The Map." "A Change of Maps" manages to exchange Bishop's Baedecker for Wright's own, the learned from the invented:

Early fall looks both ways
into the year—how we will outsmart
the distance

Outsmarting that distance is in effect to outsmart both our notions of fate and our reliance on debased versions of ourselves.

Where now? We want to know of landscape—
houses and poplars and children the maps
and master planners have no idea of.
Our arrival will coincide with the true
colors of our going.

Notwithstanding the fact that Wright is adept at ambiguity, clinging to it is not her style. On the one hand, poets want, in some sense, for their inventions to escape classification, although the facts from which they take their departure work to limit their free-play. On the other—better—hand, they want the recognition of having striven on the grid—another reason maps are useful.

Speaking of maps, any poet knows you can talk about time in terms of space, and you can talk about space in terms of other space. But you can't talk easily about space in terms of time. Does this mean, one wonders, that space is superior to time in terms of its usefulness to homo sapiens? If so, then the cultural brain-pan of the Emersonian American is larger than that of the Old World aesthete. Poetry's win-win is that it can talk the talk of both and has access to both in terms of technique. American poetic developments often come about in terms of space (think of "field composition," Black Mountain aesthetics, the "deep image," Whitman's tropes of space). Meter and rhyme are hooked forever to time—or should I say Time, but issues with time are not over and done with just because they originated in the vieux monde. Wright is one of those poets who wants to make sense of both, and yet at the same time this sense can't be made once for all. It remains slippery, subject to our evolution as poets and readers to contingencies of many sorts.

Such contingencies are at the source of our vast interest in the never-repeatable private sphere. "Love Affair in a Small Town" locates Wright in reflection upon a geographical place, bearing the imprint of intimacy and time, and it always turns out that the latter is an ironizing agent for the former: "That was the winter we clung to each other," when "[y]ou played songs from the days/ we believed music had the answers." The wised-up disillusionment is sometimes too wised-up—one might say lyrically enhanced, but at the same time it's gentle, not destructive, not finally distancing.

Recollections of intimate life, for all their significance, can't take us to origins. Family, on the other hand, does. In "Return to Seattle: Bastille Day," the poet begins by musing rhetorically,

How could I go back
to where I first took my age
between my hands like a lover's face
and said, "This far, no farther"?

But in the face of the changed daughter's encounter with her past life's sudden immediacy, rhetoric gives way to biography's status quo:

My mother, 1945, stepping from
the Armistice Day prop plane
with her unchanged face,
light off the Cascade rain fronts
troubling her memory with its danger,
years before she could blame
herself for everything.

Ambivalence toward home is the right of all, and anxiety about origins can further mute the neutral tones of place with the shade of self-awareness. The destinies of families certainly look fixed: the mother's universal acceptance of blame takes place in a culture and time unlike that of the daughter. Her sacrifice seems at once limited and overwhelming, not fitting—except by forced thought—the time or the imagination. But if family is destiny, then return is a trap. Everybody in the family is in the process of manufacturing avoidance: father's sleepwalking, sister's vanishing, mother's vague-but-vast self-recriminations. It is not the place to find restoration; neither is it a hell of dysfunction.

Likewise, in "A Reply to Storms in New Orleans," the poet remembers those evenings of resounding climatic threats whose outcomes could go either way. The memory is brought back, mythically enlarged, by that city's image of the seasonal deluge:

                                No nightly pyrotechnics,
no Voudoun-Thor hurling his thunderbolts
upside the sky, great swags of rain-laurel
slapping the jalousies. Never the dull
pressing-down of cloud cover, breezeways
in heat-stunned swelter, saltwater
glaze on the skin. Not the river
twelve feet above the city, the levee
that cradles the current in its arms
rolling slow as thunder. No monsoon's
straight-down drench, Creole sweetness
and crepuscule making an evening of afternoon.

Our vulnerability exists both as danger and opportunity, to say nothing of the sense of menace, becoming hard to distinguish from victimization, indifference, or for that matter, baptism. Chalk the confusion up to sub-tropic swelter, and you've understood how ambivalence imparts its regime on memory itself, whose own daughter was the Muse. In the end, the poet remembers how her mother ("younger than she'd ever be again") once soothed her brother over the Stürm und Drang of another kind of wild weather—that of the Northwest, precursors of wilder metaphysical storms surely to come.

In the echolalic "Unfinished Country," Wright imagines emotion as space,

"How high the moon?" we talked around ourselves
as air and ocean switched polarities
over the heart's unfinished country.

The image-complex includes not only geographic space, but outer space ("solar wind") and moon. As if in response to her seemingly disingenuous question, the poet's Diogenes' quest for truth falters under its own circularity:

Hands recall their bruising rhythms
that linger like multiple entendres
over the darkening bluffs.

And so, as is so often the move Wright executes, there is little reductive truth to take home, but plenty of emotional experience left to make a claim:

The truth—
we hesitated, lost ourselves in lamplight
while nighthawks circled, crying for direction.

The prospect of "the heart's unfinished country," neither to be easily discovered or divulged, is a few pages later raised anew to form an answer in the form of a question: "the heart's/ subzero weather?" ("Celebration for the Cold Snap"). Say what you will: a poet like this saves string and is not without resources.

"Bildungsgedicht," as the full-mouthed title suggests, examines adolescent temptations, here set in cheap cityscapes, almost as if it were a poet's duty to cruise to the beat of adolescent rock, back in the day when low was low and high, invisible. Of course this is but another variant of the Bishopian theme enunciated by Robinson Crusoe ("homemade, homemade' but aren't we all!"). The requisite boyfriend who in his bathos is lame enough to say "ta" instead of goodbye, is also a full-blown male chauvinist ("your mascara's smeared"). He pens a song for her ("Hey you're gonna dig this song"); he follows this not long after with casual betrayal: "he brought blonde Suzie/ to the Food Court, I sobbed by the Orange Julius machine." But what upsets her more than this boorish display is the failure of imagination:

His tenor was smokey and nasal
like Dylan in A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall.
"Well?" he looked me up and down. "Symbolical,"
I breathed, not yet knowing the word cliché
or bright moments of love's throwaways.

But Shakespeare-the-Fixer puts all to rights when the poet turns to her part in a local production of "The Tempest" ("'Clear, concise, poetic,' the reviewer wrote of my part"):

I went home and tore up Johnny's song, wrote one
and tore it up. If I couldn't be with him
I wouldn't be him. I opened the Cambridge edition
of Shakespeare, and told my mother the truth.
I'm starting a poem.

No less a diva than Akhmatova noted in what trashy neighborhoods our masterpieces have their origins. One of the ironies that emerges from A Change of Maps is how the poet's natural nobility reflects not merely on the insufficient and self-involved, but on the class pretensions that emanate from and limit such an iconic, sacrosanct figure as Bishop.

Similarly, in "Cult Hero" another poet figure—this one unnamed—contrasts parodically with the poet as cultural custodian, his male grooviness combining the effortless cheese of the rock wannabe with the winsomeness of the lover. As anonymous and yet ubiquitous as Pan, this person "vanishes" and in a way that is his truth—leaving us with our disillusionment. The poet suggests that our first mature literary steps are situated upon just such disillusionment, and that fact is persuasive ("our best rhetoric"). Is instruction, then, somehow modeled by a fickle lover's abandonment? Leaving us with "nothing" (the culmination, you might suppose, of love's "nothings") may only lead to the negative space of opportunity: it is purposeful enough? Does it leave a clear enough space? Still, like his more famous poet/teacher, something of the lessons of poetry cash out the same way—in different denominations, to be sure, but according to the same script (scrip?): faith, disillusion, departure, revision.

Knowing that no knowledge ever arrived without its emotional weather system, Wright gives us the lover as deflated demon in "After All Is Said and Done": "I ride past your house, my body/ heavy with total recall." Like a meteorologist (whose likeness to a cartographer would be noted here monitoring the course of systems), Wright monitors the divergence that occurs between lovers, whose persons change readily into cyphers.

We were too alone for the long haul,
we hadn't yet learned
doubt's forwarding addresses.

As Clare noted, those we love the best are stranger than any others; thus maturation, whether for the emotional being or the artistic one, is often antithetical to one's motives in seeking love in the first place. Look how far the once-beloved travels:

You've sat in the medicine circles
between shamans who carved
the spirit poles: ravens and seals
under the rain spell, cured
of the vision called forever.
I live with shopping malls.

Which is better? The question of the difference between high and low art is perennial, never more so than for poets who passed from the 60s through the theory-correcting late 70s and 80s to the whatever 90s and beyond, assimilating and synthesizing, cherry-picking inspirations from the downlow to the transcendently highbrow. Shopping malls don't make the shamans look any better by contrast. In fact, as a comparable destiny, the shopping mall makes the shaman look, well, diminished.

There are too many good poems here to discuss, but I will mention just a few for their combination of formal felicities, savvy diction, and controlled voice. "Darwin's House at Downe (Closed Fridays)" looks at the ever-changing nature of memory—with poems, like specimens, overseeing and managing the freight of detail like the great naturalist's taxonomies. "Another Look at 'Albion on the Rock': Plate 38 of Blake's Milton," one of several sestinas (I haven't seen such a commitment to the form since Marilyn Hacker's debut over three decades ago) considers the waves and emanations from Blake's great vision to the contemporary poet's vision that "love is our wealth. It holds nothing in its hands." "As I Drive over an Irrigation Ditch at the End of Summer, I Think of Small-Town American Preacher" is a dead-on parody of James Wright's mid-America evocation of lonely Chinese questers updated to millennial evangelism in the context of Y2K, OPEC and nuclear silos.

Carolyne Wright's journey through nearly four decades shows that the past is often a world that resists disclosure, and yet the fact is less a fact about the past than a fact about our ability to find signposts among contingent scenarios. Wright has this ability; which is less a concession to the spell of technique (which she owns) than a kind of knowledge about poetry's secret sway and coterie wisdom and therefore of abiding interest to poetry's serious readers—be they ever so few—who know that the intramural is what we used to call the universal, but know also that that is no come-down but a field promotion fitting for the lean hereafter.



© 2008 The Cortland Review