on Causeway, poems by Elaine Sexton (New Issues Poetry & Prose)
Great poetry resolves in its form, but there is no great poetry without unresolved tension within. Perhaps this is obvious to everyone, since the necessity of tension sometimes inspires poets to make passable facsimiles. I prefer a book of poetry that makes tension its manifest or muffled topic. Or if the poet is more stubbornly dedicated to addressing the world abroad (a Whitman, a Niedecker, an O’Hara), let the writing be audacious. When the poet loses or can't maintain concentration on the bind that has launched a poem, other faults quickly show up, such as the craven pleasing of aesthetic, rhetorical or political expectations. Or, poems may reflect too much credit on themselves – for instance, for the quality of memory and depth of feeling or appreciation. My tastes contend: No tension in you, no attention from me.
There is no shortage of tension in Causeway,, Elaine Sexton’s second book of poems. The work offers a set of thematic and material oppositions: city and country/seaside, intimacy and separation, anxiety and composure, the desire to get things right grating on the sense that something’s amiss. But the ur-tension is built around entrance versus escape. Sexton stakes out an artistic challenge to achieve a balance in her poetry that will not violate the unsteadiness of the pictured experience and the speaker’s voice. The first of four sections begins with poems located in the city. It’s a shrewd choice, suggesting a shared, skewed vision, establishing a link to the increasingly personal poems to follow located in other settings. The speaker of Causeway literally emerges from the urban crowd.
LOWER MANHATTAN PANTOUM
Always a bad sign
people on the sidewalk looking up.
A crowd forms, cars slow
people on the sidewalk looking up.
I step into the pool of them
I gape like the others.
I step into the pool of them,
become the pool
and gape like the others.
Mothers, peddlers, suits
become the pool
of the wreck.
Mothers, peddlers, suits,
my super, my neighbors,
My super, my neighbors,
no one is not stunned.
we look at our watches,
Someone says let’s pray.
We examine our watches.
A crowd forms. Cars stop.
Someone says let’s pray --
always a bad sign.
Sexton builds her poems out of particulars – but the world she presents is entropic, shifting. “Masonry” is a catalog poem, naming the bricks structuring the places where she and her family have lived: “The whole / Eastern Seaboard’s / worn bricks / crumbled alike / in the sun.” These initial chanted poems of repetition give way to longer-lined narratives – in which the extended line signals developed thought. The straitened communication of “Lower Manhattan Pantoum,” both communal and personal, becomes a considered topic in “Night. Fire” where the speaker recalls sitting with her family beside a bonfire at the beach. Here are the last two stanzas:
Families deal with this sort of thing
poorly, so far as I can tell, and so when the bon-
fire loosened its hold and we stretched our mysteries out
over the sand, the way we’d never do over a meal
in one or the other’s house, we heard
the lips of one wave touch another as if each spoke for us.
And words came slowly, or didn’t come at all.
Slowly, or sometimes not at all, seemed better
than never. And never seemed to be coming
forward like the sky, which is always so close
and receding at the same time.
The six stanzas of “Night. Fire,” though more relaxed in their phrasing than the pantoum, are also enjoined by linked phrases that suggest a mind requiring mooring in order to manage the ungainly and imperfect. It is a fine surprise next to find “Estuary English,” a poem about being carried away, in which the speaker compares herself to a razor clam plucked from a tide pool by a seabird’s claws, as a child is plucked by a kidnapper from “the wrack / of my family”: “I did nothing but let them / hold me. I struggled little / once I caught sight of waves cresting / and crashing. It made no sense, / given the gravity of granite, / not to look, and keep looking.” Those claws are yet another image and means of keeping the struggling thing in place. The poem tells us the personal creation myth of this poet, myth as something absolutely true in a psychological sense, and transpersonal as well. It suggests that art is an unpredictable, mysterious and tragic outcome of our origins – postponing one death by avoiding another (surrendering to the clutch). The seriousness of this charge alone precludes the possibility of credit-mongering, not that Sexton is tempted here. The volume includes a few other fine poems specifically about art, such as “ ‘Lake Camp’.”
The causeway as a connecting path, built through waters that otherwise would have their way, is not a benign structure. The transit between Sexton’s antagonistic forces may be threatening, as indeed it is in the title poem. Two people walk along the causeway; the speaker feels constricted within “your idea of me” and seeks but can only envision an escape in the image of a hermit crab which “squeezed in a shell, // contorts her own body / to carry the weight / of a hard-won / scholarship on her back.” But the causeway isn’t malevolent either, if we regard all of Sexton’s locations as connection points, places where significance adheres and consciousness is quickened.
Sexton’s speaker needs the action of a third force, such as a hungry gull, in order to be set into motion. But often a memory suffices, if it liberates the voice to sound like itself. At the end of the third section with “Class,” a reminiscence of “minding a child / at the beach club,” the desire for flight in “Estuary English” becomes a plan to escape the confines of youth. The poem is forceful not because the memory is sharp, but because the speaker’s language is still invested in the moment. She is still the girl weighing “belonging / and not belonging, the salt water, / always free, the steps to it already mine.” Causeway has been thoughtfully arranged to let us experience the tidal shifts of a psyche. Her poems often touch on the difficulty of direct or interpersonal expression, even as they clarify a speaker’s abiding affections and affinities. In the final section, we find “Hook & Line”:
Now that we’ve agreed
to be spontaneous
together, I picked a cove
for its benevolent bow,
late spring, the perfect
time to simply be
on the beach, just us, before,
the summer crowds
step off the ferries,
reflecting the Sound’s salt
surface. Here the stones
are smooth, white and ochre.
Some, green, stained
by dried sea, still cling to
Paired differently now,
we let our new partners unpack
the napkins, the glassware.
A rusted fishhook catches
my rug as I spread it, and you
pull at the nylon line,
still attached, to protect me.
If I’m not mistaken, such pulls often cause imperfections. I’m not certain how a sea lichen-stained rock can be “embarrassing,” but this speaker is hyper-alert for the next emotional wrinkle. In any event, social situations come equipped with troubling, sinister traps for Sexton, whether it is a crowd craning their necks at a disaster or two couples unpacking their lunch hamper from Dean and Deluca. The ironies are softened by self-inclusion.
At the far end of these poems’ desire is composure, a settling of antagonisms, frequently presented here through an interaction with natural elements, usually the sea. In “Sailing,” a poem in the second section, Sexton’s “I” is a member of a crew of strangers enjoying a fine day on the water. The impulse is mainly descriptive, and the poem ends this way:
The wind pressed an acceptable twelve knots,
so we swiftly came about an island
and cove whose names lent themselves
to metaphor. I stopped testing my acuity
for calm. This vacancy occupied hours.
the cut of the sun and clouds referenced
the depth of pleasure, how long it lasts, and how
contentment drained you, you
not moving a limb – in any direction.
But the lines themselves do nothing but “test my acuity / for calm.” Their literary affects (“metaphor,” “referenced”) are dull, and the avowal of calm is awkward and forced. Even “acuity” sounds like she is fishing for something too precise. When Sexton makes claims for equanimity, her lines lose their dynamism, the perjured phrases demand credit for an emotional state she cannot depict convincingly. She’s simply off her game. Yet consider the poem “Heaven” which, though loaded with pathos, nevertheless enacts its fixed, devotional emotions through a more confidential and tentative tone and diction: “You might call this / a prayer, a return to that moment, // that year I believed God / lived in Mexico’s mountains.” The lovely and precise resolutions in Causeway hinge on things seen momentarily and with brilliant clarity. The girl who would swim to freedom in “Class” gets her chance in “Swimming the Sound.” In this numinous poem, Sexton’s speaker redesigns the experience as a disappearance of people – those problematic citizens, family, lovers and friends – into qualities of light on the water.
Causeway is a book to savor and study for its ambition, scope, and execution – but also, for its generosity in freeing us (by gathering us in its claws) to experience desire and understanding in dynamic and sometimes conflicting action, much as in “Borrowed House”: “the way we push and pull one another / as we buffet the past, as I see it, through glass.”
[Published April 2008, 78 pp., $14.00 paperback]