Recently, I stumbled upon two amazing, little books: James Meetze’s Dark Art I-XII (Manor House, 2013) and Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s A Primary Mother (Least Weasel, 2012). Both contain strong writing predicated upon extended meditations of subject matter simultaneously extraordinary and mundane; yet, each collection does so in its own unique manner.
Meetze’s monograph is the inaugural release for Manor House, which is an extension of the journal Manor House Quarterly. No “purchase page” exists for this collection as of yet, but I would encourage you to buy it as soon as one goes live. While Dark Art explores several themes and concepts, these poems foreground a meta-critical examination of poetry, which is “the darkest art” (14). Take, for instance, the following excerpts:
The story grows darker with the forest,
the poem in the space between trees. (11)
A realer cold gathering in the touch
of dreams of real people
as ghosts, saying words that won’t ever return.
The words have not unfinished business.
They are magicked into being
in our throats, our mouths, in air, to say
“where language fails, poetry begins.” (12)
I wanted to say without distortion:
language is just a tool.
Warped, it becomes a poem.
The order of the poem is arbitrary
like constellations are; the recipient
of it draws a line from here to here.
So we see a line.
Anyone can make a god out of it. (15)
These three passages provide a fairly accurate representation of the content of Dark Art, and, I think, offer some terrific insights into the nature of poetry.
In the first excerpt, the speaker understands the “poem” to be the “space between the trees”; in other words, we discover poetry in the negative space around an object, not within the object itself. To some extent, invoking the notion of negative space echoes Keats’ concept of negative capability, which is the ability of an artist to reside within “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
The second passage conflates the world of “real people” and their “dreams” in such a manner that poetry becomes an extension or product of the necessary (and, therefore, paradoxically affirmative) failure of language to accurately reflect this in-between space. To this end, the excerpt resonates with Wallace Stevens’ admonition in his “Adagia” that: “In poetry at the least the imagination must not detach itself from reality.” Such a melding of the real and imagined provides both the writer and reader of poetry with a glorious failure that enables us to access otherwise unattainable emotional and intellectual spaces with the aid of poetry.
The final passage offers two separate but equally compelling ideas about poetry. First, the speaker of this poems appears to engage—in a round-about manner—the purpose of poetry. Often times, critics (cultural, poetic, or otherwise) bemoan the fact that contemporary poetry is too insular and affects a flaccid l’art pour l’art stance; on the other side of the spectrum, there are complaints about utilitarian or “accessible” poetry succumbing to market demands and the lowest common denominators of nostalgia and sentimentality. Dark Art suggests that, instead, that we think of poetry as a “Warped” tool that creates a bent, melted, and distorted utilitarianism, such that it produces an ethics of happiness and suffering wherein the resulting outcomes are too convoluted to comprehend (but there are outcomes nonetheless): in effect, splitting the difference between the reductive binary. The second idea this passage forwards is that of the poem as constellation: an open text predicated upon both arbitrary and constructivist modes of reading.
If Meetze’s Dark Art explores the concept of poetry and the manner in which it avoids reification through protean definitions and explanations, then Lee’s A Primary Mother accomplishes a similar task with the idea of light. In fact, the poet prefaces the second half of her chapbook with an epigraph from Book III of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which asks: “May I express thee unblam’d?”
For this reader, though, the Milton quote acts as a provocation for a series of questions more central to this collection, such as: Are we even able to express light through language? And, if so, can we do so directly? To my mind, A Primary Mother answers both of these questions: Yes, we can express light through language, but only in the indirect, warped, and failed manner in which poetry affords; or, as Lee writes, “the sound that fails” (5).
The first half of Lee’s chapbook, which is a series of seven, semi-related prose poems, opens with the declaration that:
Sunblindedness is no longer an epiphenomenon, an attendant attitude of danger buried under mounds of quiet. As a roving brilliance, those caught in it truly reckon how the meanest light defends you. (4)
This passages suggests that “Sunblindedness is no longer” just an effect of starring into the sun; rather, it allows for one not only to stare into the sun, but functions as the cause for doing so. To this end, the poem posits a reorientation of cause-and-effect relationships, and, to some extent, the relationship between language and the world.
And everywhere throughout the first section, the poems beg the question: Does light create the language we use to describe it, or does language itself create light as we know it? The poems, seemingly, never answer the question; but it is the process of continual linguistic displacement and re-orientation of light that, in fact, propels these poems forward:
If brightness is a quantity while oceans writhe and heave around it (4)
It is beautiful to remember pastels after sunsets (5)
This romanticism is a voracious shape between us, reminding us to stare upwards into the negative space that once stood for light. (7)
The inconclusiveness of feelings that arise move with a heat and dynamism analogous to the surface of the sun. (10)
Like Meetze’s poems, which address the negative space between the trees, Lee’s poems call attention to the “negative space that once stood for light” by measuring the ocean through “brightness,” or the remembrance of a beautiful sunset. By using language to provide secondhand definitions of light, these poems generate a sense of “inconclusiveness” about their subject matter because of its “dynamism” and ever-shifting nature.
Lee brings this elusiveness into greater focus during the chapbook’s second half, titled “On Light.” The opening section reads in its entirety:
Add light to light and you have darkness.
Add light to light and you have expanse.
Add light to light and you have memory.
Add light to light and you have light. (13)
Employing the synactical structure of mathematics, the poem is at once contradictory, tautological, noetic, inscrutable, and absurd. How can “light” become “darkness” through addition? How can one add more light to light? Can light be augmented, or is it simply a static state of being? What is the relationship between light and spatial (i.e. “expanse”) and temporal (i.e. “memory”) constraints?
The strength, I believe, of Lee’s poems is that they do not answer these question out-right or in a definitive manner; instead, they continually alter our understanding of light until we realize that it “is more complicated” (18) than we heretofore expected or thought. We might never crack the “cipher” of light’s “myriad message” (22), but in this there is no shame. It is simply enough to “Announce” and “Speak” (22) of light through the warped language of poetry.