Culture & Conversation

Conferring Grace on the Materials at Hand

The American poet George Oppen liked to cite the carpenter’s art as a useful model for the construction of a poem. He argued that a poem’s parts, when properly connected, constitute a structure of both shapeliness and utility–a ladderback chair, say.  The beauty of Oppen’s simile is that it places the poem in the broad context of hand-made objects, and the poet in the real world of people involved in the labors of making. The result relocates poetry, removing it from the world of ether to the world of oxygen.

The work in Robyn Sarah’s new collection, “Pause for Breath,” is obviously the product of a careful shaper, a carpenter of words. She’s a poet who takes the materials at her hand and confers grace on them. Sarah is not happy with the postmodern world, this age when “every ante has been upped / past every paradigm of decency.”  Without apology, she chooses her means of response with the tools of another age. She favors measure and the discipline of rhyme, and is entirely able to satisfy the demands of formality. Regrettably, this is often in the service of a morality that is too tidy. Sarah makes glancing acknowledgement of the catastrophes of the 21st century, for instance, but too many of her poems on these themes are facile. She’s a good poet whose craft sometimes disguises the fact that she has little to say about that hasn’t been said before. But even her craft fails her sometimes, her meters turning to doggerel, her language mawkish. She writes of “thoughts that wing / out of dream,” about how “Gay it is in the sun,” announcing that “Time creeps, time flies.”

Sarah’s real gifts shine through in her more tensile, more personal poems. Often, she takes the principle of mortise and tenon and enacts her own version of literary joinery, producing poems snugly locked in style and content.  At their best, there is no loose play in these constructs. When she admits “I do not like what life has scribbled / in my blank book,” the reader takes notice, relieved that the tone of complacency has finally shifted into doubt, and that the poem is an exploration rather than a conclusion. We take joy when she writes of an afternoon with a companion when a flicker runs through her and she says “still I hear, / like summer signing off, that faint / whirr in the grass: / crickets, or our bodies / talking to each other.”  The most completely realized example of this density is a poem called “Blowing the Fluff Away,” which is worth reproducing in its entirety:

Blowing the Fluff Away

The sprig of unknown blossom you sent last fall

spent the long winter drying on my wall,

mounted on black.  But it had turned to fluff

some months ago.  Tonight I took it down

because I thought that I had had enough

of staring at it.  Brittle, dry and brown,

it seemed to speak too plainly of a waste

of friendship, forced to flower, culled in haste.

So, after months of fearing to walk past

in case the stir should shatter it to bits,

I took it out to scatter it at last

with my own breath, and so to call us quits.

–Fooled! for the fluff was nothing but a sheath,

with tiny, perfect flowers underneath.

If Sarah had only blown more of the fluff away in this collection, we would see even more “tiny, perfect flowers.”

Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  His most recent book of poems is The Hierarchies of Rue from Carnegie Mellon University Press.

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