Form can ‘gladden us, tease and worry and madden us’, thinks the novice reader who narrates Ali Smith’s Artful. Debates about form have long gladdened, teased, worried and maddened poets as we have been sorted – or sorted ourselves – into crude clumps: pro- or anti-form. What’s more interesting lies in-between these two poles: form’s flickering capacity to balance steadiness and dynamism, as Smith’s narrator realises. Putting the Form in Transformation is one of the headings in a partially-written lecture by the narrator’s lover, who has died, yet who is addressed throughout: ‘these headings… were very like you. They were corny, a bit tentative, a bit bullish; they were kind of awful and it was as if they knew this about themselves and were vulnerable to it’.
Like Artful itself, form is concerned with de- and re-arranging, working between what has gone and what is to come, like a lover’s ghost who returns to slop tea and hide the pencil-sharpener. Form is an artful cutpurse, whose stash follows stealthy slashing. It is about connection and generation, as Smith writes: ‘the connecting force from form to form…. the toe bone connecting to the shoulder bone… the bacterial kick of life force, growing something out of nothing, forming itself out of something else.’ As form and trees are placed next to each other throughout Smith’s work, this suggests – tentatively, without the bullying certainty of conventional literary argument – organic regeneration and the oxygen each can provide.
Yet, in the context of poets’ debates, form can figure as a room you enter or you don’t, usually a very small room, if not the smallest, imagined as staid and stultifying, or worse, suffocating.
New Formalism, or Neo-Formalism, arose in late twentieth-century American poetics in response to a perceived neglect of rhyme, metre, and stanzaic patterning. Its poems often return to linear narrative, though tending to eschew the autobiographical underpinnings associated with confessional and lyric poetry.
Dana Gioia is central to the movement as a poet and commentator, though he expresses a sense of being an outsider. He spent years in the corporate world working for General Foods as he began to write. Born in 1950, of Italian and Mexican descent, he grew up speaking Italian and came late to poetry. He makes overt connections between his unhip Catholicism and his desire to use his public opportunities, such as his role as Poet Laureate of California, ‘to bring the gifts of poetry to the broadest audience possible’.
In his influential 1991 essay ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ Gioia criticises a poetry world from which he feels alienated as an enclosed subculture and a ‘distressingly confined phenomenon’. Poets figure as irrelevant and self-important, ‘[l]ike priests in a town of agnostics.’ Charting the neglect and diminution of poetry beyond that subculture, he finds its decline aided by a paradoxical overpublishing and ‘boosterism’, a ‘clubby feeling’ in the selection of anthologies, and an abandonment of the ‘hard work of evaluation’ in the culture of reviewing.
He notes poets’ drive to ‘publish as much as possible as quickly as possible’, with academic selection panels counting rather than evaluating the product: ‘Wallace Stevens was 43 when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was 39. Today these sluggards would be unemployable.’ He asks questions about who reads poetry, pointing to an industry ‘like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants’, and about the economics of poetry. His characterisation of such debates remains relevant, especially the nervous portrait of ‘gatekeeping’ poets and editors motivated by determination to exclude others.
Alongside this lament is his 1987 manifesto ‘Notes on the New Formalism’, which begins:
Twenty years ago it was a truth universally acknowledged that a young poet in possession of a good ear would want to write free verse.
Invoking and remaking Jane Austen’s line shows what his argument goes on to tell. Formal poetries, of which he sees a ‘major revival’, might inhabit and allude to what already exists, but must be innovative: ‘Literature not only changes; it must change to keep its force and vitality.’
More eloquently than any manifesto, a poem like Gioia’s ‘Marriage of Many Years’ suggests formalism’s potential. About a long, happy marriage, it is also about fidelity in other senses, including to formal elements such as rhyme and metre.
Its bright machinery is meticulously made. Each ten-syllable line has its small weddings. Repeated words pulse – happen, happen; touch, touch, touch; lost, lost – and quiet rhymes move towards one another, like ‘lip and fingertip’. Its pair of eight-line stanzas balance neatly, pivoting on that risky word, ‘heart’.
If form, like marriage, gets a bad rap, it is perhaps because, as the teachers of my particularly ‘bad’ Year 9 class used to tell us when they denied us various joys and privileges, some people have wrecked it for everyone else. There are plenty of examples of ‘bad’ formal poetry, including in Gioia’s oeuvre. In his essay ‘New Formalism: a Dangerous Nostalgia’, Ira Sadoff cites this one, ‘The Next Poem’, from a poem about making poems:
How much better it seems now
Than when it is finally done –
the unforgettable first line,
the cunning way the stanzas run.
Bad form, like unhappy marriage, is the opposite of freedom. Its rhymes feel joyless and perfunctory, like done and run; it has a sense of obedience to patterns for the sake of surface conformity. Yet for all this restriction, each unhappy poem is unhappy in its own way. ‘Awful Poems’, suggests Steve Kowit in a chapter in The Poet’s Portable Handbook, though awful in their own ways, have common symptoms. These include rhyme at any cost (‘for the sake of a rhyme word, the author is willing to say almost anything, however silly and nonsensical’), archaic words and poetic inversions. His own illustrative ‘awful poem’, ‘The Missing of You Hurts’, hurts:
O you who were there all the time
to show how much you truly cared
so that I knew you’d evermore be true
and gladden my heart like the sun-kissed clime…
Sadoff critiques New Formalism as a ‘dangerous nostalgia’, with the decontextualisation of poetry and a loss of dimension accompanying the privileging of form. He suggests that ‘with predictable meter comes predictable thinking’ and argues that most American poets are in ‘a terrible hurry and substitute formal solutions for substantive problems’.
Using a similar metaphor of poets’ ersatz priesthood to Gioia’s, Sadoff situates New Formalism as part of a cycle whereby poets ‘take up one formal movement after the next, hoping to bring back a mythical age when poets were priests instead of professors’.
The mistake of the neo-formalists, then, is the mistake of all those who believe that form has a life of its own. We read Keats’s poems not because they make lovely sounds, although they do, but because those sounds are connected to perception, and those perceptions dramatize intensely the relationship between the admittedly uncomfortable contingent self and a shifting world.
That framing debate is now decades old and has been upended in ways Gioa and Sadoff didn’t predict. For example, the growth of hip hop and spoken word forms has marked a return to and embrace of conventional formal elements including rhyme, especially end-rhyme, and regular metre. Poet and translator A.E. Stallings’ work contributes in other ways to this revivification of the formal.
Stallings’ third book, Like, is described by her publisher as ‘her archeology of the domestic, her odyssey through myth and motherhood’ and her poetics: ‘received and invented forms, from sonnets to syllabics’. Praising ‘a diverse quiver of poems’ reviewer Rowland Bagnall emphasises her ‘typically innovative use of traditional verse forms’.
Like’s opening villanelle ‘After a Greek Proverb’ seems lean and obedient from the first of its terse tercets and the establishment of its initial refrain: ‘We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query’. Its spare and often monosyllabic diction is replaced by the second refrain’s larger Latinate words: ‘Nothing is more permanent than the temporary’. This complicates the poem to shift its focus to the uneasy pivot of ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’.
The poem’s ‘we’ is a family who has moved from one place to another, for ‘a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back’. The rhymes that follow are crumbs leading to the collection’s centre: back, (out of) whack, unpack, smack, stack, and crack. Disjunction and fissure, rupture and repair: an array of unpackings cut their way through Like.
The next poem, ‘Ajar’, is a split form. Its dissected lines chart the small currents of a domestic rift – a broken washing machine door and the resulting slow-soak of untended laundry, anger that begins ‘to reek’ rounded out by the rhyme and line:
And sometimes when we spoke you said we shouldn’t speak.
By association, and juxtaposition, the broken washing machine becomes Pandora’s box (‘a jar’, actually, as Stallings notes – ‘box’ is a mistranslation that has stuck), and much of the poem retells that myth. The form is Stallings’ invention as she splits the poem between the mundane and the mythological; between frustration and wit. Anyone who tends the towering pile of laundry would sense the energy here – this poet, and this poem, does speak, and it could smash in two the faltering washing machine and the whole paraphernalia of its soak, reek, and labour, right now.
‘Bedbugs in the Marriage Bed’ is a spry sonnet about bedbugs until its volta jolts it from the literal to the figurative – no bugs detected for months, ‘but still you frown’, the poem’s ‘you’ waking in the early hours, imagined eggs hatching in dreams ‘like doubts’, or ‘negatives you cannot prove’.
Stallings’ poems and suites come ‘after’: mythology, getting married, and migration. They revel in remaking these narratives through forms either reinvented or pioneered. They are poems in dialogue – with other characters, other poets, children, and partners. There is an outwardness to the collection – a sense of declamation, performance, and engagement with the past, especially the ancient past.
At Like’s centre is the long suite ‘Lost and Found’. Its images of a mother organising her children’s belongings is sometimes wry, sometimes furious. If parental love involves a decades-long act of shuffling stuff, the poem’s lengthy collection of ancient myths, dislocated dolls’ limbs and sharp-corned toys mimics this. From the start, its catalogue of lost objects – ‘[s]ome vital Lego brick or puzzle piece’ and ‘a doll’s leg popped out of its socket’ – opens to the larger frame of misplacing ‘[y]our temper and your wits, till you exhaust/ All patience with the hours it has cost’. The poem counts ‘[t]he hours drained as women rearrange/ The furniture in search of small, lost change’. The speaker asks her small son whether he thinks:
That making you go to bed
Or washing dishes is something I enjoy,
And that I’ve got nothing better to do instead
Of hunting for a crappy plastic toy?
A vision of Mnemosyne – the muse of memory – leads her through a dreamscape of loose ends and ‘the halls to which we can’t return’. The speaker as Sisyphus-with-a-pen ‘stalks a skittish rhyme’ while she sleeps, because otherwise the mind ‘has no free time’, surrounded as it is by domestic and writerly clutter. At first the speaker can’t work out who this leader is. She imagines it may be the spirit of a poet, and asks:
…Are you She who used to burn
With bittersweet eros? Are you She who learned to master
The art of losing? She who did dying well,
Beekeeper’s waspish daughter? Amherst’s belle?
These images reach towards fleeting and broken images of Sappho, Bishop, Plath, and Dickinson, all askew. Emily Dickinson may have been her own reclusive belle, but she was hardly Amherst’s. Perhaps these elusive and mis-imagined figures are spectral versions of slippage and loss, as it limns, honours and recalibrates Bishop’s art of losing in the context of the domestic.
The poem – like the book – is about things falling away, including ‘woman’s loveliness’, a conventional view of ageing the poem despairs about but seems not to interrogate. Despite this, it ends with resilience, and a commitment to living in ‘the sublunary, the swift,/ Deep present, through which falling bodies sift.’
Around poems about headlice and childbirth (an image of ‘Her body like a pomegranate torn/ Wide open’ evokes Demeter, Persephone, mothers, and loss), Stallings includes three poems about empathy. One is her sestina ‘Like’, the other two are about refugees, ‘Refugee Fugue’ and ‘Empathy’.
‘Refugee Fugue’ starts with the plain statement: ‘Dry land isn’t something you should pray to reach’, as the speaker watches holidaymakers on the beach. It then extends into literary and mythological allusions, but the inclusion in this catalogue of a reference to the drowning of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi raises ethical questions about the positioning of speaker and non-fictional subject, and about the capacities of language to highlight violence – or, however inadvertently, to exacerbate it. The poem is heartfelt, and the collection continually situates the domestic in the wider context of refugees’ homelessness, but in this case, some of the patterning required by its form pushes it into lines that cannot respond to the inhumanity they describe. As a line referring to the death of a small child as a direct result of punitive policy in relation to asylum seekers – ‘The sea can make you carefree, nothing left to lose’ – feels profoundly inadequate.
Perhaps all language is, so not speaking or writing about such atrocities is no solution. But here form exemplifies the aestheticisation Theodor Adorno warned against. The problem, for Adorno, is that the ‘aesthetic principle of stylization… makes an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror is removed.’ The trap is that this aestheticisation may render writing ‘in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims’.
Pablo Neruda, too, in his poem ‘I Explain Some Things’, warns of the dangers of metaphor to lead the eye away from atrocity, concluding his poem with a metaphor that refuses metaphor:
through the streets the blood of the children
ran simply, like children’s blood.
Yet still, for Adorno: ‘It is in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it.’ As Bertolt Brecht’s poem ‘In Dark Times’ puts it, posing a question from the future to writers: ‘why were their poets silent?’
Where ‘Refugee Poem’ may be betrayed by form, it moves through its sections looking for ways to make itself heard and to address the impasse between collusive silence and inadequate witnessing. In its ‘Aegean Epigrams’ section, ‘Fathomless’ unravels the idea of the fathomable:
Unfathomable, unfathomable, the news repeats, like charms,
Forgetting that ‘to fathom’ is to hold within your arms.
Its sharp moments: ‘Go tell the bureaucrats, passerby, that all is shipshape, fine’ are diluted by the formal pressure to conclude: ‘The stuff that trickles from your eye is only a little brine’. The final section of the poem frees itself from form into a loose found poem. ‘Useful phrases in Arabic, Farsi/Dari, and Greek’ suggests language’s humanity, and urges for it, even as it wavers between consolation (‘friend’, ‘you’re welcome’, ‘what is your name?’, ‘you’re safe’) and fear (‘Sorry’, ‘it has run out’, ‘We do not have it now’). We have to make something new happen here, the poem argues. We have to find a new form.
‘Empathy’ is fuelled by the humility of recognising the immense privilege of having the freedom denied to asylum seekers. It catalogues gratitude – that ‘Our listing bed isn’t a raft/ Precariously adrift’ and that ‘the dark/ Above us is not deeply twinned/ Beneath us’. In this way, its portrait of a life compared with one whose terrifying rootlessness it does not share, insists on naming the conditions of those forced to ‘wake/ Our kids in the thin hours’, buy ‘cheap life jackets/ No better than bright orange trash// And less buoyant’.
The poem confronts the speaker’s comfort in its last stanza, where rhyme connects dissimilar lives, and she considers empathy’s smug aspect, and, implicitly, what empathy needs to do and say to be larger than this:
Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.
‘Like’ is the poem for which Stallings is famous – it has itself, ironically, attracted a crush of social media likes and loves. Stallings takes the sestina’s complex pattern of repeated end-line words and replaces every one with ‘like’. The results find ‘like’ in its various forms (alike, dislike, money-like, unlike and belike) spiking the lines’ punches. The opening line’s ‘there is no love but Like’ segues into a connection of one thing to the next by means of pun, jest, and homonym. Yes, there’s a critique of social media’s ‘like’ function, and that there’s ‘no button for dislike’, and, as in ‘Empathy’ the easy practice of ‘liking’:
This page to stamp out hunger.” And you’d like
To end hunger and climate change alike
But it’s unlikely Like does diddly.
The way like ‘props up scarecrow silences’ is another target:
So OVER him,’ I overhear. ‘But, like
He doesn’t get it. Like, you know? He’s like
It’s all OK. Like I don’t even LIKE
Him anymore. Whatever, I’m all like…’
Complacency is an enemy in Stallings’ poems about refuge, and she writes that she works in syllabics ‘to shake off the iambic lilt and weigh each syllable. Anything I can do to catch my subconscious a little off guard.’ In the last poem in Like, ‘Whethering’, the speaker gets up at night while her children sleep, listens to ‘the typing of the rain’ and reaches again for something spectral. This time, rather than following memory’s crumbs, she is moved by: ‘Something formless that fidgets/ Beyond the window’s benighted mirror’. Form, in the meantime, is what ‘holds it all together’, as she writes in ‘Lost and Found’.
…Is it so difficult
For the spirit to conceive a face, a mouth? — Sylvia Plath, ‘Three Women’
I see forms come and go and new forms get created. It’s exciting. I do wish we wrote in forms more often, I love them so. Poetry forms. Not the filling-out type of forms. Those are boring and hard. That’s like the opposite of poetry. And the opposite of fun. — Ada Limón
Ada Limón’s fifth book, The Carrying, is about things taking form, or being released from it. It is about the weight both of what can be held (or what we might long to hold) and the intangible.
Its template is the natural world and its order, which humanity may be able to read – or fathom – but not always. In ‘Almost Forty’, birds behave strangely – ‘insane// in their winter shock of sweet gum and ash’. The speaker and her companion:
swallow what we won’t say: Maybe
it’s a warning. Maybe they’re screaming
for us to take cover.
The Carrying is about desire, and the forms it takes. The speaker of ‘Almost Forty’ writes:
I’ve never been someone
to wish for too much, but now I say,
I want to live a long time.
The unfathomable – what can’t be held in our arms – includes fertility. ‘Trying’, a poem about conception, explores the idea of growing things – the making of something from nothing that includes growing tomatoes, trying to conceive a child, and writing a poem. Each of these abuts and refutes the world’s violence, alluded to in the trellising of young plants to strengthen them and the image of ‘a week of violence in Florida/ and France’.
There’s no adornment here, and the poem’s unevasive narrative and lean frame suggest hunger, as in this image of the speaker and her lover in ‘Trying’:
to knock me up again. We do it
in the guest bedroom because that’s
the extent of our adventurism.
The poem, too, as it continues its making, resists poetic adventurism.
‘The Vulture and the Body’ begins ‘On my way to the fertility clinic,/ I pass five dead animals’. The lines that follow sit in couplets or triplets, loosened by gaps, spaces, and dashes. Long lines that buckle and break suggest the weight the collection measures. Occasionally a line stands alone, not quite sticking to the stanzas around it, perilous. The speaker imagines saying things she is unable to: ‘I want to say, But what about all the dead animals?’ Like the three dead deer the speaker sees ‘all staggered but together’, the poem’s lines are spaced, but hold together in a pattern of hope and grief, of trying (to speak, to conceive, to find form) and letting go to be open to whatever follows that.
If, as Mnemosyne in Stallings’ ‘Lost and Finds’ suggests, around us are:
…the frayed, lost threads
Of conversations, arguments, the yarn
Of thought and logic’s clews we’d thought we’d spun
Only to find they’d somehow come undone
then form might work as fixative, or the splint that holds a young vine steady. Limón’s poems refuse this, preferring to shape themselves in alignment with the loss and fissures they explore. Their lines are capacious, as the poems work through and around the question:
What if, instead of carrying
a child, I am supposed to carry grief?
The catalogue of injured or wrecked bodies of human and non-human animals comprises an unfathomable augury. The speaker takes the auspices in a world of road kill: dreamed birds like a raven ‘mangled in the branches,/ crying out’ (‘Dream of a Raven’), or in ‘Dead Stars’, she is ‘a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying’.
While dandelion heads seem to grow overnight: ‘making perfect identical selves, bam, another me/ bam, another me’, the speaker of ‘Would You Rather’, consoled by her partner’s suggestion of a Plan B involving ‘more time, more sleep, travel’ catalogues ‘all the places/ I found out I was not carrying a child’.
The body in these poems is part of something larger, yet always disintegrating. In ‘The Vulture and The Body’, the speaker wants to tell her doctor:
it’s enough to be reminded that my
body is not just my body, but that I’m made of old stars
From this awareness grows a sense of protectiveness and possibility, expressed in the swooping lines of ‘Dead Stars’ that break as they approach another wanting-to-speak, this time to state and ask:
Look, we are not spectacular things.
We’ve come this far, survived this much. What
would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?
The possibilities of what might happen if humanity ‘[s]tood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?’ are yoked to articulation. The collection is scored for a spectral choir of silenced voices and songs unsung. In ‘A New National Anthem’ this arises in the image:
the truth is every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us
Beneath us, in these poems, are forces we abjure, destroy, or ignore. Part of this is about empathy, and as in Stallings’ poems, this is not always available. Part of this is about a bureaucratic othering that attends some invitations. In ‘The Contract Says We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual’ the speaker, invited to discuss her work, limns the ways alienation pinches hospitality, cutting off empathy:
Will you tell us stories that make
us uncomfortable, but not complicit?
This ‘us’ refuses to include the speaker: ‘Don’t read us the one where you/ are just like us.’
Despite this, the poems return to ideas of connection and inclusion. Some of these are intimate, such as ‘Love Poem With Apologies for My Appearance’ in which the speaker relishes being ‘unencumbered by beauty’s cage’, and ‘Wife’, which ends with an image of
the one who
doesn’t want to be diminished
by how much she wants to be yours.
How to live with beauty and espousal without being caged or diminished is the poems’ formal work, too. Towards the end of the collection’s loose narrative, in two blocks of prose poetry, the speaker inherits the old cats left behind when her partner’s ex-lover dies. She makes a bleak joke that the title of her memoir might be ‘I Thought I Wanted a Baby but All I Got Was Your Dead Ex-Girlfriend’s Two Old Cats’ or ‘Before the Wedding You Must Suffer a Little’, but realises instead the power and continuance of leaving envy behind, kissing this other woman’s former beloved, ‘the man she used to love’.
In ‘Notes on the Below’ the speaker addresses the ‘humongous cavern’ and its creatures at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky: ‘wet limestone, sandstone/ caprock, bat-wing, sightless translucent cave shrimp’. The poem ends with prayer, the word ‘speak’ repeated as its core:
Ruler of the Underlying, let me
speak to both the dead and the living as you do. Speak
to the ruined earth, the stalactites, the eastern small-footed bat,
to honor this: the length of days. To speak to the core
that creates and swallows, to speak not always to what’s
shouting, but to what’s underneath asking for nothing.
I am at the mouth of the cave. I am willing to crawl.
In Jenny Xie’s debut collection Eye Level, seeing and being seen criss-cross through poems about transitions, translations, passing, passing-through, and rootlessness. Unlike Limón’s earthy connection to Kentucky, Xie’s poetics, like Stallings’, calculates the balance between temporary and permanent. As she writes in ‘A Slow Way’, ‘It’s possible I’m tallying/ wrong in this life’, and in ‘Rootless’: ‘counting’s hard in half-sleep’.
Like the speaker of ‘Rootless’, in ‘traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size’, her ‘lateral gazing’ affording clarity, Xie’s poems are mobile and observant. Like travellers’ clothes, provisional and accommodating, form here appears as simple and practical, yet its pieces are flexible and versatile. And like travellers’ outfits, Eye Level has, at a glance, several capsule items: prose poetic stanzas, long-lined couplets, poems collecting compressed and epigrammatic segments.
Unlike Limón’s rarely end-stopped lines, with their enactment of weight and spill, Xie’s tend to be more contained, like the itinerant self in ‘Unspoiled Fictions’ who travels conscious of the limits of ‘[a]uthentic encounters executed just so’. But there is a sense of refusal in these poems too, as in ‘Exit, Eve’, where the speaker leaves in a ‘flat blaze of fury’ in order to be independent, self-defined, fortified by knowing ‘no one paid my way’.
Robert Frost’s road ‘less travelled’ situates two roads that lie ‘equally’, with passers-by having worn them ‘really about the same’. Xie’s poems map bifurcated roads with an ache of longing for the one abandoned. Modes of doubling and mirroring recur, from couplets to poetic ‘diptych’, a name she gives several suites. This is a poetics of looking in two directions and of weighing-up, with a sense of acute assessment.
Of these, the rippling undercurrent is intimacy and solitude. ‘Epistle’ ends with a drafted letter to a lover:
to say the opening you left is wide enough for me
but I’m stunned to love aloneness
Frost suggests, elsewhere, that poems begin ‘as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness, a reaching-out toward expression’. Homesickness pulses through Stallings’, Limón’s and Xie’s work. Frost’s ‘reaching-out toward expression’ can mean finding space within the rooms of villanelles, sestinas, sonnets, and haibun to find expression, or it can found in the crafting of new forms.
Form for Xie is trying on inherited wisdom, or a language she can’t speak well. ‘Old Wives Tales On Which I Was Fed’ catalogues the former in couplets that shift from one piece of wisdom to the next, like two roads laid out by looking back:
You’ll wreck your eyesight poring over pages in low light
but looking at all things green from a distance can coax it back
To look from a distance may mean being outside language, as in ‘Phnom Penh Diptych: Dry Season’ where the speaker is in a restaurant:
Can you fix this English?
The Chinese restaurant owner asks, pushing a menu towards me.
‘I translate what little I can, it’s embarrassing’. The owner’s daughter assesses this, asking the speaker: ‘Just passing through?’
Passing through, though, is also about freedom. If need is a snare, as Xie suggests in this poem, the youthful ambitions that feed it might be a garment that gets, like an old pair of swimmers, ‘wet and slack’, so: ‘I wring them out’. Yet in writing advertising copy the speaker in ‘Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season’ is ‘in the business of multiplying needs’. In this economy, ‘[d]esire makes beggars of each and every one of us’, and wanting is a ‘[h]eavy garment’.
Freedom includes the freedom not to be looked at. In one of the small contained prose stanzas of ‘Zuihitsu’, a Japanese form of collected fragments of personal essay, the speaker says:
I am protective of what eyes cannot pry open. The unannounced. The infinite places within language to hide.
In the juxtaposed poems ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘Naturalization’, though, Xie lays out the private histories of a woman and a man, the latter identified as the speaker’s father. Bearing witness and protecting privacy may drive a text in two directions. Each is about the translation of lives, and forked roads. ‘Metamorphosis’ watches as
The wife crosses over an ocean, red-faced and cheerless.
Trades the soft pad of a stethoscope for a dining-hall spatula.
Life is two choices, she thinks:
you hatch a life, or you pass through one.
In ‘Naturalization’ the speaker’s father is caught between languages, confusing ‘snacks for snakes, kitchen for chicken’. Again, this shifts to a metaphor of clothing:
The new country is ill fitting, lined
With cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.
‘Visual Orders’ watches a woman leaning towards the mirror for ‘self-study’ and notes what gets left out:
The fine, lithe needles of the mind.
Endless conversations with no listener.
The poem weighs ‘What atrophies without the tending of a gaze?’ with the ‘trance of camouflage’.
Xie’s poems expand into rows of poems, towards lyric essay. ‘Visual Orders’ weighs pieces of uneven size and mode – lyric snippets, invented forms, prose slivers – to circulate around ideas of sight and seeing. At times it reaches for others’ words, as in ‘’:
Lacan writes, ‘I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides’.
Later, the speaker addresses a ‘you’:
Look at how I perform for you
Look at how you perform for me
An eye for an eye
is how you and I
take on forms in the mind
It is perhaps in ‘Alike, Yet Not Quite Alike’ that Xie’s multifarious, traveling poetics take a form that perfectly captures the alignment and misalignment her levelling process enacts. Here, Xie’s lines hold two images: ‘Thin fish bones arranged on the bone plate, a bracelet’ or ‘Solitude and coarse waiting, wedged stubbournly’. As the scales of each line settle, the two sit against each other. Travel, loss and release move through the lines, until the last line: ‘Astonishment of being left and of choosing to leave’.
Xie’s labour of finding form in the joining of pieces rests in this line, which carries the book’s light and shadow – ideas of solitude, freedom, loneliness, and love. Form travels to escape and find itself, here, where Limón lets form fall away, and Stallings catches the formless to give it shape, bracing against convention to shift and reinvent.
These comments are exploratory and provisional. Maybe, like the lectures in Artful, they can only ever be looking outwards into questions, ‘corny, a bit tentative’, and maybe, in the vulnerability of that, some kind of door is left open. Reading is looking out across the field of these poets’ negotiations with form, sensing the hum of making.
Form is seed and husk. It is spindle, hand and skein.
Theodor Adorno, ‘After Auschwitz’, in Negative Dialectics, trans Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973)
Rowland Bagnall, ‘Life in the Present Tense: Like by A.E. Stalling’, LA Review of Books, November 25, 2018.
Dana Gioia, ‘Can Form Matter?’, The Atlantic, May 1991.
Dana Gioia, ‘Notes on the New Formalism’, The Hudson Review, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 395-408.
Ira Sadoff, ‘Neo-Formalism: A Dangerous Nostalgia’, The American Poetry Review, January/February 1990.
A E Stallings, ‘Why Bother With Poetry?’, The Times Literary Supplement, November 7, 2016.
by Ada Limón
by A. E. Stallings
Farrar, Straus, Giroux
by Jenny Xie
Published March, 2018