THE ELEVATION OF THE FRAGMENT, as a writer’s means of portraying his or her world, has become the literary verification of the 20th century’s recognition of the broken nature of perception. It’s a technique not only for bringing the written word in line with the phenomenal, but also for forcing the reader into the same world as the writer. At its best, it produces work of cognitive immediacy that jars expectation. At its worst, it produces a scrap pile of debris under which poets attempt to hide their deficiencies.
In Carolyn Marie Souaid’s new collection, Paper Oranges, she uses the fragment as a strategy to slow down what is otherwise a remarkably fluid style, and to give her poems a fractal, hesitant edge. Billed as the poet’s response to the blunted spiritual quest of characters in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Souaid commences by invoking a sere Beckett landscape in fragmented Beckett-like language. The first poem begins, “Darkness. A tree. Dry grass husks.” And then the single word “until” constitutes the entire next stanza. Souaid leads us into her poems and then drops us off a precipice. The reader quickly realizes that the mimetic world of conventional perception does not exist in these meditations, and that her demand, which conscripts us in her quest to find the source of her longing, does not include taking us by the hand. Souaid’s poems demonstrate that the ease of standing upright is not the same thing as possessing grace.
This is from “L’Intensite de L’Instant”:
What binds you, of course,
not the logical universe
or the reliable moon
but a common lemon desire:
Tang & verve.
The exuberant, pumped-up heart.
The fragments here force us to fill in the blanks. As in many of Souaid’s poems, the words aren’t always where we expect them, but they’re impossible not to see. When she needs the savour of a sour kiss to provide a little sting, she miraculously finds a lemon to do the trick.
Despite the sustained note of restrained despair in Beckett’s play, Souaid’s response to it is glittering. She’s still responsive to the dazzle of creation and language, but cognizant of the shadows that loiter in the understory, threatening catastrophe. Alternately, she gives us stanzas like this, from “Dada Landscape”:
Look, it beckons: tambourine dawn.
A cold, queer dance.
Glaze on the naked field
where the moon slid down….
And follows them with lines like these, from “Improviso”:
First things first: we averted life.
Then we averted death, spinning
into & out, mostly out, of control.
Ultimately she knows, like Beckett, that much of existence is a conflict between inertia and attentiveness. But she knows, too, that inertia is easily mistaken for a spiritual state by the inattentive, that its duration can be the record of a mind slowed to the point that the infinitesimal can be examined for evidence of the monumental. She’s prepared to see everything, even if it’s through eyes dimmed by error. The imperative of self-examination through poetry compels her to an inwardness that she constantly revises.
Her poems rock back and forth, between light and dark, on a fulcrum that never permits them rest. The poems are her way out. She writes, “On the runway, a plane will be waiting.”
Souaid’s poems work best as starbursts, sudden illuminations on the rim of our
consciousness. At 106 pages, unfortunately, this book violates these limits and risks the hazard of surfeit. Its claim to be a meditation on Beckett, which seems more important to Souaid than to the reader of her poems, begins to feel strained. The last section, “Flight,” which itself runs to almost 40 pages, strikes one as complete in itself, taking up its own complex set of themes-renewal, decline, place, the vertigo of travel, and “the chemistry of leaf & leaf / rubbing up against love.” It’s easy to see “Flight” as a book in itself, or the beginning of a new book. Regardless, Carolyn Marie Souaid writes like an angel, and honours her art, both in its fragments and in its whole.
Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His most recent book of poems is “The Hierarchies of Rue” from Carnegie Mellon University Press.