Poetry of Note: Books by Susan Settlemyre Williams, Robert Bly, and Norman S. Shapiro

on Ashes in Midair, poems by Susan Settlemyre Williams (Many Mountains Moving Press)

Susan Williams’ poems are strange in the most humane and stimulating sense of the term, for they propose a fidelity to a world held in common as well as a need for uncommon expression. This is the voice of a fully developed poet in stride – though there are many angles and registers to that voice. Williams is a poet of situations. The reader is granted the semi-security of context, entrusted to the confidence of Williams’ speaker, and then buffeted by surprise and alarm. Throughout Ashes in Midair we encounter a solid world made porous by wonderment and speculation. Williams’ performances are achieved without strain, suggesting that her personae have access, for some reason neither they nor we can know, to a world that is just now beginning to be perceived, even as it comes apart.


On her knees, she leans
forward and paws the dirt

with short, rapid dog-strokes.
This must be a dream, I know

nothing about this woman –
Did I say that I am behind her, that

I can’t see her face?
Did I mentioned how her faded

cotton skirt and kerchief conceal
her entire body except for the hands?

No reason to confuse her
with a dog. Dirt flies back

in black plumes around her thighs.
Her blackened hands are quick.

What she’s put in the hole
is hidden under her straining breasts.

It isn’t large, no bigger
than a mandrake root or the corpse

of a mourning dove.
No sound but her breathing.

Soft breath. Soft pawing. You’re cursed
if you hear the shrieks

of the mandrake when you dig it up.
So here’s the witches’ trick: you tie

a dog to its stem at midnight in the dark
of the moon, and you make it run.

The bad luck goes on
the dog. Forget the body. Forget

I even mentioned it. There’s nothing
I’m trying to cover up.

There never was a dog
or a root. No hole. No bad luck.

Nothing I know is small enough for the hole.
The woman’s done. Her hands

are folded on her knees. Her shoulders
shake, with weeping or with glee.

Williams.jpgThere is a kind of ars poetica in this poem, since Williams creates stable scenes out of unstable elements. Her overriding purpose in Ashes in Midair is to offer the pleasures of dislocation within a world recognizably our own. In this way, her narrators are both crisply audible yet hard to define. Her own pleasure seems to come from reserving self-revelation and slipping by without getting pinned down, very much like both the woman on her knees and the person describing her.

Part II of the book, titled “Kathryn: A Calling,” includes “Lightning” below, spoken by “Kathryn” who has remained in North Carolina while her family has moved on and the elders have died. She is aged now, dedicated to memory. The uncertain urgency of the “woman burying something” is transferred to Kathryn.

You’d think it was sleep
caught him on the playground,
napping before he made third base.

In the dust, furrows pointing to
his shoes, the burned-off soles. Second-graders
screaming and the rain bouncing

off the dirt. I couldn’t move. Another
teacher took the children in.
Like sleep, but that curl of blood

in his ear. I think I taught him once
but he was high school now.
A funny name. And the air

gone blinding. The presence of something.
I kept standing. My skirt stuck
to my legs. Even after the men lifted him. After

the rain turned his empty shape
to mud. Standing in the Presence.
My hair a river. I was washed away.

The will to express a sense of “the presence of something” is the obsession in Ashes in Midair. But the interest lies in the rapt voices. Their jittery recall of details (their most enduring relationships are generally with their own memories) darkly expose the mind’s wayward impulses. Life recalled is life voiced and pictured in extremity. Many of those voices are archetypal, rising out of myth and folktale. But they merge with stricken earthly voices provoked by distress, as in “Silhouette of a Woman Alone” in the book’s third section: “Defined by what’s cut away: / Last name. Breast. / What’s left after the cutting is silence.”

a.jpgAshes in Sunlight had a long gestation. Williams was an undergraduate at UNC-Greensboro in the days when Randall Jarrell could be seen walking across campus. She had a successful career in law before pursuing her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University where she studied under David Wojahn. “I share his taste for cultural and historical oddities,” she has said, “and have tried to learn something from his work about how to handle those subjects without being dry.” Yusef Komunyakaa selected Williams’ manuscript for the Many Mountains Press book prize. It must have leapt out to him as an untypically polished and mature collection that speaks with the authority of deep experience and the deliberateness of long preparation.

[Published May 2008, 90 pp., $15.95 paperback]

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On Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations by Robert Bly (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Thirty years ago I received the following note from Robert Bly in response to some poems I’d sent for his magazine The Seventies.: “I don’t know if this will make sense, said so baldly, but these are too extroverted. Jung links extroversion with too much investment in objects. The poems seem to have too many objects for the amount of feeling in them. The coolness decreases the intensity.”

Over the following decades, my employers subjected me to Jung-Myers-Briggs tests to determine my personality type. The result was consistent: “distinctly expressed introvert.” Despite arriving at conflicting conclusions, Bly and the Human Resources Department shared an agenda, namely to rectify or improve output by categorizing and stimulating the psyche. bly2.jpgThe CEO promoted me to vice president since my “counselor” personality mode appeared to fulfill the qualities of a manager. Bly had detected an insufficiency of leaping association in my poems – in his view, a sign of unhealthy incompetency. Since I was much too attached to things, he couldn’t offer a slot on his org chart, only severance. During the layoff, I read my Jung – and came to appreciate both the generosity and quirkiness of Bly’s comment.

bly.jpgThe University of Pittsburgh Press has just reissued Bly’s Leaping Poetry, first published by Beacon Press in 1975. Here you will find what the Iowa City poets were striving for back then: the Duende, as spelled out by Lorca. Bly described Duende as the awareness of the presence of death, an imaginative force that works against the rule of intellect. Lorca had written, “Very often intellect is poetry’s enemy because it is too much given to imitation, because it lifts the poet to a throne of sharp edges and makes him oblivious of the fact that he may suddenly be devoured by ants, or a great arsenic lobster may fall on his head.”

For Bly, association is a form of content. The “loss of associative freedom” was allegedly scuttled beginning with Chaucer and Langland in favor of “ ‘masculine’ mental powers.” Leaping Poetry offers examples of the mentally agile verse he favored – translations of Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda, Ekelöf, Tranströmer and Rilke, as well as a selection of modern and contemporary poems. A certain strangeness links his choices, but beyond that he simply picked what pleased him, such as several early brief poems by Greg Orr and singles by Bill Knott, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsburg, Russell Edson and others. Bly contributes nine short commentaries to brighten things up. His assertions were never as important as the energy of the voice speaking them which purported to draw from some primal source.

Transpersonal archetypal consciousness has lost some of its luster for writers, especially younger ones, ever since structuralism and post-modernism waged war against the permanence of meaning in symbols and signs. Champion of the mythic, Bly fought his own battles as when saying, “from the start Christianity has been against the leap” -- a querulous assertion (eg., check out the leaps in George Herbert or John Donne) about a useful antagonist. What one actually hears in Bly’s book is the wholeness of voices, not just the suddenness of strange statement or image. One wants to be reassured that wholeness is still achievable, and for this reason Leaping Poetry continues to offer us confidence and inspiration.

[Published October 26, 2008, 136 pp., $15.95 paper]

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on French Women Poets of Nine Centuries, selected and translated by Norman R. Shapiro (Johns Hopkins)

“The amiable crew of Peet’s Coffee and Tea in Harvard Square” is among those acknowledged for helping Norman Shapiro produce this impressive volume. Having translated the works of fifty-six poets who wrote over a period of nine hundred years, he must have been one of their best customers for some time. In her introduction to the opening section on “the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” Roberta Krueger notes the many forms employed by these poets. She writes, “The works translated here include verse narratives (lais and fables) in octosyllabic couplets; the fixed forms of Provençal lyric and courtly love poetry; Petrarchan canzonieri or sonnet sequences; didactic epigrams; allegorical narratives; religious sonnets and odes; occasional poetry; and verse epistles.”

frenchwomen.jpgSimply finding all of this poetry was an impressive effort. The anthology begins with fourteen poems by Marie de France (late 12th century) and concludes with seven by Albertine Sarrazin (1937-1967). As Rosanna Warren writes in a foreword, “The effort crosses boundaries of class, language, and even country: the writers may be queens, like Marguerite de Navarre, or the daughters chambermaids, like Marie-Catherine Desjardins de Villedieu; they may write in Occitan, like Castelloza, or they may be Belgian, like Marie Nizet and Liliane Wouters. Some lived in centuries, like the eighteenth, when a salon system encouraged talented, privileged women to write and perform; others had to endure extraordinary hardship to seize the power to write.”

Perhaps Marguerite Porete is the collection’s abiding presence (although Shapiro does not include her work here). After a trial in 1310 in Paris, she was burnt at the stake for heresy having refused to recant her version of Christian spirituality in The Mirror of Simple Souls (Mirouer des simples âmes). As the centuries passed, women of privilege observed the rise of court poetry (ballades, rondeaux, and virelays), learned the conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet, and enjoyed the work of Ronsard and Villon, then Racine and Nerval. Marguerite de Navarre was one of the first poets to use terza rima. But all advances until recently depended on either obtaining a degree of power or permission. By the Renaissance, writes Krueger, “women’s contributions were no less vital to domestic and town economies throughout the period. Individual women wielded power and influence as queens, regents, wives managing estates in their husbands’ absence, widows governing lands and households, patronesses at court, organizers of salons, and, no less, as mothers who shaped their families’ destinies.”

Madeleine des Roches (1520?-1587) and her daughter Catherine (1542?-1587) led salon society in Poitiers and “defended women’s right to lead a life of the mind, though not at the expense of traditional pursuits, which they defended as well.” (The biographical pages on all fifty-six poets are fine reading in themselves.) This is Madeleine’s “Sonnet VIII”:

Someone more blessed might ask, of my woe-spent
And doleful sighs, my mournful moans: “Did she
Never know joy, poor soul? In misery,
Did the stars trace her days in long descent?

Is it the truth? Or would she, pity-bent,
Merely rehearse a sad soliloquy?”
Nights without sleep torment and torture me
Ten thousand times more than I dare lament.

Sleepless nights blunt my reasoning; my head
Remembers little; tongue’s fair skill has fled;
Fear shrinks my mind from what it once had been.

Dulled of its fire, my spirit fails to flare.
And of my former self, nothing is there
But my desire to write rather than spin.

“The Distaff and the Pen” is the subtitle of this anthology – the distaff is the spindle from which thread is drawn. Catherine des Roches picked up where her mother left off in “To My Distaff”: “To write; for, when I write – as now I do, / Writing, distaff my dear, in praise of you -- / My hand holds both the spindle and the pen.”

This is a big book. French and English versions are presented on facing pages. After browsing through the centuries, one may conclude that this weighty volume is mainly filled with dutiful convention. As Rosanna Warren bluntly puts it, “In spite of the strong showing by a number of these poets … the larger picture may strike some readers as depressing … Century after century, a good number of the women poets lament love and claim the province of the heart and breathless sensibility in diction that never breaks beyond the conventions of their time … With few exceptions, the twentieth-century poets in this collection seem not to have absorbed anything from Rimbaud or Apollinaire or any other poet of ferocious and original power.” There’s no Dickinson here, no Akhmatova. If the women poets didn’t absorb the techniques of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, Catherine Perry attributes this to “the heterogeneity of their [women’s] works … Because, unlike male poets, they did not attempt to create ‘schools’ or to write manifestoes … women poets have been deemed unable to mark the literature of their times in any significant way.” Nevertheless, French Women Poets of Nine Centuries gives us a new, broad view of the long attempt of catching up. The conventionality breaks open in pockets and spurts of individuality as the clench of sexual power over these poets haltingly dissipates.

[Published September 22, 2008, 1182 pages, $85.00 hardcover]