on Orphan Fire, poems by Alissa Valles (Four Way Books)

Orphan Fire is a book of protean virtuosity, a young poet’s display of the vectors radiating from her sense of where her talents lie. She begins with the twenty-part title poem, an evocation of force and indeterminacy in the world – not human force, but a consummation that tempts yet barely comforts or even serves the human. The series begins with a prose poem:

i.

Not a god’s weapon of mass destruction, just a flint spark, driven up a dry hillside, on Ararat of course, let into the stables like a stray animal to share at the trough, until an intruder stealing a horse saw it and thought he could make it work for him down in the brothels of humanity; now anyone can touch it: junkies, canteen cooks and poets, and for them it consumes its own origins, air, eagerness and brightness; twice orphaned, by gods and by earth, just to give bodies of clay an hour’s warmth.

“Orphan Fire” is a creation and expulsion story, broad in scope even in its fragments, about the vagrant and provisional nature of life. Each poem-part is a determined flaring of language, quite precise about what it wants to consume, as if cornering the energy required to unpack the speaker’s bitter knowledge:

v.

You wanted a pure island language
blind to the world like a tree’s root
but you drew a slip of paper saying:

a word like a hand that could reach
and touch the face of an angry child,
a dying man, and now you can’t find

a word in any language that would
both bind a man to his own world
and lead him, trusting, into another.

There may be such a word, but how
to know to whose body it’s attached,
from what world it is reaching out?

valles1.jpgBut the goal-driven agenda of Valles’ performance seems to answer its own question: yes, there is a sufficient means of admitting to a desire for “a pure island language” and describing encounters with a child or a man. The proof of its utility is what “Orphan Fire” both addresses and aspires to. If a poet like Donna Stonecipher in The Cosmopolitan (like Valles, what Americans call an “international” poet simply because she’s been around the block) ironizes the privilege of witnessing beauty and creates a wholly new perspective on experience, Valles takes direct aim at her topic in order to prove she can hit it. Her fluency is so smooth and her familiarity with inherited models so facile that the reader succumbs quickly. But that question at the end of part V. may also begin to sound meretricious.

“The warmth left in a seat on the bus / proves. Against all odds, the raging / of some inextinguishable furnace” – the fire is transposed into the trace of body heat in part VI. It is evident that this speech also has ambitions to accomplish the binding and leading of a “pure” language – or if not pure, then polished. “Orphan Fire” is not only nuanced in its expressions, but also various in its rhythms and modes of address -- and the advance and retreat of the first-person, giving way to description of places that reads like solemn judgment: “Lyrical grasslands frame the greyish foreheads of cities / overgrown train tracks run alongside the shallow ditches // where before a passing eye the nettle-centurions bloom, / ratifying ceaselessly the pact of beauty with destruction.” The series and the first part of Orphan Fire end with this poem:

xx. Draft for a Psalm

Night sky, voyaging stars, distant space: I can’t hear what you’re saying. A drunk
is singing in the yard, a cat chasing prey, a woman groping along a crumbling wall.

I prefer a gull’s scream, empty and clean, when the sea wind reaches into its throat
and a boat pulls away from shore, though what is real is neither purity nor distance

but the place on the wall someone’s hand wore away, a cat’s eye, a drunk’s sleep.
Night sky, voyaging stars, distant space: guide me, instruct me, inhabit my voice.

“Orphan Fire” finds a companion piece in the first poem of part II, “Photograph,” in which a harsh light illuminates the images of children: “The glare from the window makes the small bodies / oblique: it looks as if some force were pulling them irresistibly out into the world / on the other side of the glass …” But after “Photograph,” the book takes on a willful and sometimes plodding ironic tone. It is as if the poet, having decided to reduce the more flexible expressiveness of “Orphan Fire” to more strictly patterned phrasing and a single severe voice, has found a means to diminish and punish the inhospitable world she critiques.

valles2.jpgValles is the most recent (and controversial) translator of Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry, and in her Boston Review essay, “The Testament of Mr. Cogito,” she says, “Herbert represents the fate of the poet-prophet or national bard when his or her society collapses.” Valles seems to have put some pressure on herself to pay a derivative sort of homage to Herbert, Milosz and others in these poems. She also writes, “Herbert has a quality of imagination that I think is particularly valuable to those struggling to find language adequate to monstrous stupidities and abuses of power … But Herbert’s imagination is effective precisely because power is not its ultimate reality.” This is the part of the creative equation that Valles’ hasn’t yet mastered. Her persona emits a constructed aura designed for the historical and creative occasion, an obtrusive knowingness. She seems too mindful of the tragic glamour of her subject (“her society collapses” per Herbert) and too focused on demanding our submission. Valles’ ultimate reality in Orphan Fire is the fixation on her own substantial powers.

I don’t mean to disparage Orphan Fire. On the contrary, Valles’ ambitions create theater, a view of a young poet maneuvering to address an entire world and to earn a seat (or a spot on the rug) beside her mentors. A prophet of doom speaks in the first part of “In the South” about a prophet of doom. An obligatory comparison of the two is triggered by implication. Who is the more powerful, the more persuasive?

i.

Cicadas:
no history, only
a permanent revolution of seasons.

Rain: an unwanted intimacy of Zeus,
all contact with the crew has been lost.

The city prophet
staggers to a corner store,
crying in tongues that the end of the world is at hand,
followed by a retinue of dogs.

He lies down in the dust, on the asphalt road,
while the cars whip him with shreds of his shirt.

From behind a billboard
promising the salvation of the world
steps the loud constituency of the dead;

a soldier’s uniform flies
bodiless over continents,
pocked stuffed with flesh:
a tangle of long grey hair,
pulled from a hairbrush,
still goes hungry.

Dog man,
discover with your cane the edge of the sidewalk,
and cross on the arm of your memory of crossing.

By mid-book Valles’ speeches take on a first-this, then-that, then-this cataloguing of ominous figures and objects, as in these final lines of “Relics of Cluny”:

an old woman
sits down nearby
asks for a cigarette

she smokes it
holding my hand
fondles the warning

a man in a suit
books a cremation
on a mobile phone

the head waiter
weighs evidence,
sits in judgment

These fragments in poem after poem demand to be regarded as monuments. The rhythm of address becomes predictable and goes on too long. “Repetition suggests an excess of confidence in the one thing you are doing,” writes Fanny Howe in The Winter Sun. This is where an editor must make the crucial decision. Are these poems “thin” and should they be replaced with new work to come? (If so, is this poet willing to wait and work?) Are revisions in order? Or is what we’re reading not thinness at all but a lightly deft fingering of heavy material already established, an apposite and welcome variation? Tough call.

Valles seems to be striving for nothing less than what she has discovered in Milosz in the final section of “Days of 2004”: “Because his path ran by the world’s / edges, where in isolation and doubt / he found beauty and knowledge; / because no road on earth shunts / that knowledge back downtown; / poetry hangs out but never dwells.” But a poem most certainly will dwell in the mind of the person who loves it. Valles’ lines often assume the tentative, skittery posture of hanging out, but they are dying to dwell – and her poem “Terminal Étude” succeeds at this brilliantly. How interesting that this étude, the most formally demanding poem in the book, requires a concentration that has apparently distracted the poet from both indulgence and worry.

Then quite unpredictably, the book’s third section morphs into persona poems, yet another virtue on display. Valles here vacillates between irony and empathy, balking at commitment to either attribute. By this point, Orphan Fire looks increasingly like a versatile experiment in technique and less like a groping search for its own core. She is too careful.

Orphan Fire recoups its leaking energy with the final six-part “Post-Homage,” an homage. It begins, “Shades of Tu Fu, Tang landscapes of Po Chü-I, / let me enter into your precincts / I who come from the secular cities / hiding metaphysics in a viola case.” Here is an echo of “Night sky, voyaging stars, distant space: guide me, instruct me, inhabit my voice” from the earlier poem. She continues, “I ask a poem that neither primps nor shirks.” Primping and shirking aside, Orphan Fire is striking for its desire to be found worthy. “Let me enter your precincts” is a most important entreaty for a young poet, the arrogant humility of the great-one-in-waiting. May the gates open for Alissa Valles.

[Published October 2008, 82 pp., $15.95 paperback]