Vertigo in Spring, by Shannon Tharp, The Cultural Society, Brooklyn, New York, 2013
48 pages, $15.00 paperback, culturalsociety.org.
Shannon Tharpâs second book, Vertigo in Spring, does nothing less than boil down the sense of becomingâs ordinary bruisesâalienation from oneâs chosen place to live, failed love, distant or lost loved ones, vocational aimlessnessâto a fundamental condition of spiritual bereavement. Like a bluegrass record thatâs been turned into a crisply lined mural then translated into a book of poetry, Vertigo in Spring traverses this space using language that is compact and discomposing in its barefacedness.
On its surface, Vertigo might seem to sound a plain, profound wail venting the pain of homesickness. A trail of narrative details reveals that the poemsâ speaker left Wyoming for wet, wet Washington, where she feels disconnected and uneasy. The Pacific Northwest landscape and the cityscape stand against something essential to her makeup: âI want to be where the ocean / isnât possible, where the only other / animal around is a totaled carcassâ (âArchivalâ 7). Washingtonâs weather floods the mind as an unremitting, oppressive mood: ârain, rain, // rain making clear its hurtful weight, reminding / us of the truth whenever we move through itâ (âFamily Planningâ 30).
The poems also admit longing for the weather and forms of Wyoming. Catching herself picking at her scabs, the speaker reflects with a tinge of self-derision: âItâs so like me to sift through ruin, saying, / âWyoming must be somewhere. It must have snowedââ (7). A few pages later in âJune,â she restates her disaffection for her new seaside city with physical vehemence, as though the place is a transplanted organ her body rejects:
a fucking bore.
With a flip brusqueness that betrays her seriousness, the bookâs voice avows her eyesâ devotion to what sheâs left, apparent now in hindsight: âMy loveâs / no / kind of / blind loveâ // I have only / eyes for / youâ (âRearview Mirrorâ 11). I read these lines literally: her eyes are conditioned, from years of looking, to find love and beauty in the shapes of Wyoming, just as eyes are conditioned to perceive vertical and horizontal lines.
The bookâs persona feels, too, the pangs of being distanced from her people back home. Her unsentimental tone belies her devastation when she notes her isolation on a day with family significance, writing, âOn what wouldâve / been my grandfatherâs / eightieth birthday, // Iâm in Washington / beside nobodyâ (âPreservationâ 9). And as in âRearview Mirror,â many of the bookâs terse, bluesy verses speak directly and desirously to a âyouâ that could just as well be a faraway lover as the state sheâs quit.
But, from the start, the poemsâ ache goes much deeper than homesickness. Evoking Nicoâs iconic ballad, the bookâs first poem, âThese Days,â introduces the central desire that gives the collection shape:
a city that rarely
seems home. I guess
Iâll call it sickness
gone, this hard-to-say
pain and its traces
dried by a failing
sun. [âŚ] (1)
These first lines reframe what might appear to be nostalgia as a more pervasive kind of homelessness. Often the voice expresses a yearning for her place of origin in the same breath as naming it harrowing, nullifying, lifeless. âPostcard to My Sisterâ interfuses the âopen sky over / Wyomingâ where the âhills plateauâ with terror and intense loneliness (8). âPreservationâ includes the concession that Wyoming was the geography from which the speaker âwanted reliefâ (9). Even as she struggles to live in the Northwest, the speaker sees Wyo as deathly: âWhen I think in the city, I think of how / I havenât yet died on the side of the road. // It would take leaving the city for this death / to take place, as no one should be there to seeâ (âSublimationâ 3). More, she associates her past home with a near-death experience: again in âJune,â âitâs / like you saidâ / wouldâve / turned / up // dead / in a carâ (10), and almost at the bookâs midpoint in âReturning to Glass,â âIâve said nothing of the death Iâd been warned / of, or how close it was. It couldâve beenâ (16).
In the distance the book travels, the speakerâs figurative deaths and possible actual death commix with Wyomingâs dying prairielands. Recalling the line quoted earlier from âArchival,â the speaker insinuates a link between her former home and an image of a âtotaled carcass.â A persistent, muted strain implies the creeping obliterative forces of urban extension. âThese Daysâ describes patterns that âwave, wave / from the distance / theyâve consumed,â calling to mind an abstraction of a gridded, consumptive city as seen from the country; the poem also imagines the rural as âperfect with circles,â suggesting an imposed finitude.
Soon after âThese Days,â âScarecrowâ honors the âworldâs brave namesâ who are âdown in fields / with their faces / clotted by earth,â and berates its title figureâa stand-in for the speaker herselfâfor remaining mute in the face of this âprotracted change, / this clasping wait, / this time as pain / for which loveâs no / explanationâ (4). The opening of âScarecrowâ and Tharpâs later reference to Levon Helm conjures the dying out of small farms, the drastic reshaping of Americaâs rural landscapes. The phrase âprotracted changeâ canât help but ghost âclimate change,â amplifying the poemsâ resonances. Tharp gives a subdued nod in the direction of this idea when she writes,
it breaching a carousel in New York.
Were a picture of the countryâs other
side taken, thereâd be unexpected sun.
In this, the last of October, to say
I think about nature would be worn out,
but it wouldnât make the saying less true. (18)
Her one-line poem âPrairie, Endearingâ hits upon the same thought, though, with no hesitation: âpostscript to extinctionâs letterâ (21). With these pieces in view, the bookâs themes of climatic vertigo and acclimatization work on both personal and broadscale levels. Vertigoâs persona must acclimatize to a new place in the context of greater shifting conditions. Passed through the versesâ alembic, the speakerâs own protracted change of becoming rhymes with protracted changes to the landscapes where sheâs resided or resides, and then with the universal fact of impermanence. Her transition triggers a vaster awareness of inconstancy, transience. She exhumes a sublimated consciousness of mortality, opening a window onto a galaxy of losses: âThe losses I thought of as loss / are a starry floor / and cryingâs no real / surrenderâ (âReturning to Glassâ 15). (I donât think itâs a coincidence, by the way, that all of the artists to whom she refers in the book either struggled with, died of, or lost someone to cancer.)
The speakerâs move destabilizes her concept of âhome,â leaving her dispersed, vertiginous. In the absence of âhome,â the speaker suffers from purposelessness, speechlessness, musiclessness: âItâs just that Iâve / been uselessâeven // music wanted to lose / meâ (1). Tharp gets to the severity of her voiceâs despondency in âOn the Beachâ with the confession, âEarlier, sun / on my neck, I said / âI will never be a scholar.â // What I meant was / I feel meant for / nothingâ (13). Yet, she counters hopelessness with an almost Protestant ethic: âIf nothing else, this flat love puts me to work / to show me that I donât know where Iâm goingâ (7). âWork Poemâ teaches us what job the book will do to allay its speakerâs spiritual deficit. It will try to sculpt a language (contemplated inwardly or spoken) that opens onto lossâs âhurt, loveâs form affirmed, / in a way that approaches truthâ (6).
Through allusion and dedication, Tharp names Helm, Joseph Ceravolo, Ric Caddel, Anna Kamienska, and Margaret Kilgallen as the quintumvirate from which she takes inspiration for her open form. In âChain of Waves,â a poem written for Ceravolo, Tharp apostrophizes her dedicatee as if to invoke a muse, imploring him, almost desperately, to show her how to love the ocean, the cityâs sea of faces: âThereâs nothing / to love in this collected something, some / tide come up to say hi and lapse into // the ocean the same as before. What face / do you want me to take when I decide / to go swimming? And how should I begin?â The poems in Vertigo share Helmâs country-song straightforwardness and broadness; Ceravoloâs declarative intensity and his ability to conflate the mystical with basic human experience; Caddelâs subtle pained humor, his vulnerability, and his talent for getting so much into a thumbnail sketch of a lyric narrative; and Kamienskaâs humility, severity, meditative solitude, and steady contemplation of darkness and mortality.
Mission School artist Kilgallen is most ascendant in her pantheon, however. âWork Poemâ and âClose-up (with Margaret Kilgallen)â understand Kilgallenâs lifework as an ideal form, almost saintly in its proportions. Many of the poems in the book behave like Margaret Kilgallenâs hand letteringâinspired paintingsâthe words feel graphic, freehand, three-dimensional, boldfaced. All of them preserve the clumsiness of writing feeling as a way to honor the âwavering lineâ that Kilgallen loved: âIâm not supposed to tell you I miss youâ / this much is true. Itâs a sort of progress // in that I can no longer speak devoid / of sentiment, but have grown to temper // feeling and its given difficultyâ (âReturning to Glassâ 17). The two pantoums in the collection formally perform Kilgallenâs process; Kilgallen would go over and over a line to try to make it straight, but finally find beauty in the lineâs imperfectability, in the way its imperfection left a trace of the human hand. The bookâs themes of wandering and homelessness also connect to Kilgallenâs interest in hobo tags, a form of expression that could be said to both create and represent a kind of oikos in transience.
Tharp shares in common with all her guiding genii the courage to take on separateness and love and the anxiety of making life purposeful without the smoke screens of implication and obscurity. Happily, the final pages of the book leave the bright impression that, in slowly chiseling out an open and opening form of expression, the speaker has made a home. âAfter Grackles,â dedicated to Caddel, begins, âHome, home. // The choosing / to live where / form becomes / clearâ (35). Another enters into the new space, the room, this form holds. The âyouâ no longer reads as the place left behind, but as a romantic other who has arrived.