WALTER BENJAMIN ONCE DESCRIBED MEMORY as “the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried.” Our recollection of events, then, is inevitably curated and constructed, in much the same way that “dead cities” are later mined, mapped, catalogued. The work of representation—of accounting for one’s movement through time—often takes the form of such an excavation, in which we bring to light all that has been obscured by time’s slow and soundless distancing.
Three recent collections of poetry engage archival material—whether personal or more broadly cultural—in ways that fully and convincingly acknowledge this complexity. In Joshua Beckman’s Shake, Caroline Knox’s To Drink Boiled Snow, and Lisa Olstein’s The Resemblance of the Enzymes of Grasses to Those of Whales Is a Family Resemblance, we encounter language that is historically sedimented, reminding us of its own presence as an artistic “medium,” one that is charged with subjectivity and doubt. Here the all-too-familiar impulse to create meaning is revealed as a kind of burial, in which past experience becomes “part of a world no one believes in.” We are asked to consider—albeit from three vastly different conceptual vantage points—the distancing effects of language and narrative, the undoubtedly familiar experience of “shielding the eyes” while also “clouding the vision.”
With that in mind, the construction of the speaker’s voice is perhaps most telling in each of these finely crafted collections. We encounter a narrator who is stricken with awe while also mourning a world that is already past as soon as it is present. As each book unfolds, we are presented with “days” as they are “parsed with fine-toothed combs.” What’s more, we are made to see the allure (and difficulty) of closing the gap between ourselves and a shimmering past through our use of language. Each poem, and the ruptures that accompany them, remind us that rhetoric inevitably fails to bear us back from a luminous present. Indeed, the skillful shifts in voice and register enact the impossibility of that “little illusion,” of “remembering how to return.”
In Knox’s To Drink Boiled Snow, one finds it difficult to situate the work’s language in time. “A flange of ivy absorbed us,” Knox writes, “I think this was vicarious Stamford, pale buildings oblique to the train.” Here, and throughout the collection, arcane words—“flange,” “oblique,” etc.—are imbued with a startling immediacy. In many ways, this effect may be attributed to Knox’s skillful manipulation of tone, as we are presented with a first-person speaker who speaks with both authority and urgency. “To skate on black ice is hard science,” Knox insists. As the collection unfolds, we watch as language—in all of its formality and historicity—is borne into a luminous present through the poet’s careful construction of voice.
Knox’s poems also gesture at the impossibility of language existing outside of time. Though voiced with urgency, even outrage, the work is filled with provocative tension, especially when considering the interplay of tone and diction. Indeed, Knox’s language often resists its placement in time. “I am Lark Crowe / You’re Jay Wren / I guess we’re a rebus,” she explains. Here the formality of the word “rebus” strikes sparks against the more colloquial phrases in these lines (for example, “I guess”). Yet much of the work’s meaning resides in these moments of rupture and disconnect, as though each poem was “lit from within.” For instance, Knox writes,
of The Education of Henry Adams
He gave me a subscription
to The Journal of Fonzarelli Studies
We went beside the river
in the snow sleet snow
Here Knox’s use of outmoded words and phrases (for example: “my love”) becomes a source of not only tension, but also, humor. When considering the overtly formal diction of these lines, which is amplified by the work’s parallel syntactic constructions, the objects that populate this piece—particularly the “copy / of The Education of Henry Adams”—read almost as a commentary on the style of the writing. The speaker searches the archive for a proper vehicle for her affect, only to find “a copy” of someone else’s biography, and “a subscription to The Journal of Fonzarelli Studies,” neither of which functions as an appropriate signifier. As Knox delves deeper into the detritus of history and culture, the distance between signifier and signified seems only to become more palpable, suggesting the existence of language as barrier, as a widening expanse between ourselves and the “ruins” we seem to remember so clearly.
Beckman’s Shake, much like Knox’s To Drink Boiled Snow, explores the relationship between language and time. For Beckman, too, the language of the present moment falls short of fully conveying the speaker’s affect, prompting him to mine the archive for a representation that seems more real and more true. “The thirst of the crowd. We laid the surfer down. / The child and the child,” Beckman writes, “Come look what I have found.” As in Knox’s work, the archive emerges as a rhetorical space marked by its formality and aesthetic distance. The stately and regal tone of these lines, established by the declarative, almost biblical syntactic constructions, is amplified by the simplicity of the poet’s diction. Here, and throughout the collection, Beckman places language that bisects time, possibly belonging to many different temporal moments (for instance “the child,” “the thirst of the crowd,” etc.) alongside phrases that are historically situated (i.e., “the surfer”). As a result, we are prompted to consider the inadequacy of both the archive and the language of the present moment for rendering transcendent experiences. Like Knox, Beckman reminds us, subtly and skillfully, of the distance between language and experience, the widening gap between the signifier and the “light” it gestures toward.
As the book unfolds, Beckman frequently calls attention to the ways language sustains this “continued darkness,” this distance. By pairing phrases from vastly different lexicons and cultural milieu—indeed, “handsome drugs” appear alongside “billiards” and a speaker “dying of moonlight”—Beckman often evokes the ineffable, asking us to consider what will not, and cannot, be said in language. As in Knox’s work, we are made to experience speech as a source of both wonder and melancholy, as the narrator persistently mourns the inability to give voice to sublime experience. For example, Beckman writes,
touch of one another do go
and to say such things
in the grass plain of day
gone long – to be comfortable
or to lay there ruining one’s clothes […]
Here, and elsewhere in the collection, Beckman implements diction and syntax that call attention to their own historicity. Indeed, the caesuras midway through the first quoted line (“They, lost, and…”) immediately create a measured, even dramatic, tone, which is amplified by the work’s adept shift into third person (especially when considering the use of the pronoun “one”). Yet Beckman’s decidedly contemporary diction creates a productive tension when paired with this formal syntax. This provocative disconnect, and myriad potential readings to which it gives rise, prompts one to consider the ways language accumulates (and abandons) possibility over time, and the difficulty of being “comfortable” in a syntax that is constantly multiplying and subtracting.
Lisa Olstein’s The Resemblance of the Enzymes of Grasses to Those of Whales is a Family Resemblance also considers the ways that language exists in, and is transformed by, time. Presented as a linked sequenced of epistolary prose poems, Olstsein’s poems address a mysterious figure named Whistle, who is at turns confidante and purveyor of an impending apocalypse. Indeed, this faultlessly crafted book is populated by “cities being torn down,” “floods,” and “waves of data from all directions,” evoking both biblical plagues and the inherent violence of a digitized cultural landscape. Olstein’s imagery, like her diction, creates an experience of time as elliptical, recursive, and circular, returning like a literary text to the same themes, symbols, and motifs. In many ways, the style of Olstein’s prose poses a provocative challenge to prevailing notions of time as linear, a sanctum only for master narratives and teleological arguments. As Olstein herself observes, we have “lived according to the captors’ time, waking, eating, sighing, sleeping out of sync with everyone around us.”
She subtly implies, through her careful curation of imagery, that time retains a layered quality, its slow and soundless movement allowing us to see confluences, divergences, repetitions. For Olstein, it is language that accumulates, and transfigures, the materials of history, its “despair” and its “fire.” By pairing “vitamins,” “prescriptions,” and “brittle lawns” with the wreckage of “empire,” Olstein also suggests the possibility of transforming experience through our use of language. Indeed, she renders us suddenly and startlingly aware of the presence of history, its myriad upheavals and inequities, in our smallest linguistic choices. She writes, for example, in “Every Pastoral Is an Elegy,”
Here, and throughout the collection, Olstein’s diction drifts between history (embodied by such phrases as “swift leap” and “wild grasp”) and modernity (for example, “what the billboards describe…”). Much like Beckman and Knox, Olstein prompts us to consider the ways in which we search the archive when the language of the present moment falls short, particularly when attempting to convey sublime experience, the “singing” of the senses upon witnessing a transcendent moment. Yet Olstein also upholds the necessity of transforming the archive, and in doing so, transfiguring our definitions of beauty and possibility. She shows us that the presence of history and empire in language “is visible enough,” rendering us suddenly aware of culture’s machinery, how the archive, when its “hallowed halls” are opened, cultivates repetition – of “fear,” “what we hope desperately never to find.” The apocalypse portrayed in this collection, then, is revealed as an end to language as we know it, a “slippery bridge across we don’t know what,” a bridge where we will find “crossing soon foreclosed.”
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, most recently Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVox Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, a Fundacion Valparaiso Fellowship, and three residencies at the American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems appear in New American Writing, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, Nimrod, and many other magazines. She has published essays in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Descant, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly and Grants Specialist at Black Ocean. She divides her time between the United States and Europe.