V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




. . . there is an implicit narrative arc
throughout the book, a story these poems
combine to tell about lost love, absence,
memory of a life together, and the way
those memories can disappear with time.

Kate Northrop’s first book of poetry Back through Interruption, was described by Lyn Emmanuel as having “been born under the sign of the double helix . . . poems of being two:  woman and man, daughter and mother, sister and sister.”  These words aptly describe the power of Northrop’s work and what drew me with excitement to her second full-length book of poems.  Things Are Disappearing Here is as much of a must-buy as her first book; however, at times it lacks some of the emotional “shimmer” that drew me to her poetry to begin with. 
    The strongest poems in the book seem to be the ones that do what Lynn Emmanuel describes:  they impress upon us the tension in relationships.  Northrop’s ability to develop that tension is most noticeable when we feel the full force of the moment while only getting hints of a narrative.  For instance, in the poem “Her Apology, and Lament,” we are given a few descriptions of a relationship in passing seasons (“Early it was come for cocktails”; “Early, in the truck & heels”; “Summers, always the clatter of blackbirds / and pie plates”; “and once, in autumn, in the middle of the night, / the dog gone off”).  We have the implication of two people having drinks, going on a date, possibly — he picks her up in a truck; later, the relationship becomes more domestic with household cooking and dog ownership. But nothing “notable” ever seems to happen.  Then, the speaker pauses a moment to address the “you” (presumably, the other person in the previously described relationship):

        Nights into years, and then what?  This?
        You tell me            Go on
                 In the face of the faded garden,
        the cold singe of the lake,

        in the wrecked arrangement of what
                had been a deer,

        then what?  Nothing?

We sense indignation here, possibly a feeling of betrayal, though there is no clear reason why this would be so (beyond the speaker’s tone and a vague, non-referential “this”).  But the strong voice and emotional resonance mixed with such telling adjectives as “faded,” “cold,” and “wrecked” is what holds the poem together where the narrative disappears; it is enough to feel the loss and the hurt to get the lyric intensity of the poem.
    Other poems explore emotion via relationships in similar ways. A few poems continue with the “I”/ “you” pattern and these poems stand out starkly from the rest of the book in terms of emotional “vividness”:

    Wherever I go, I bring evening.

    I am the sorrow of flowers that open at twilight,
    sorrow of doorways and bottles,
    of cats that disappear in the rustling hedge.

    I am the face you saw once by the lamp in the window,
    —that which almost belonged to you

These images in the poem “Three Women” are all representative of loneliness and emptiness, but especially distance; here, the “I” and the “you” are literally separated by a pane of glass and we can almost see one’s reflection cinematographically superimposed over the other as he/she looks out from the warmth within.  With these images, we can feel the sorrow that the speaker feels, we can feel the distance.
    Distance between the “I” and the “you” also appears later in the poem — in what is in some ways a more literal reference to the tension:

    If only our story weren’t
                so ordinary: first,

    pain loses its cut, its perfect

    specificity, then names
                dissolve, even those I knew for you

    and for our locations.

But, as the above excerpt says, although we feel this pain with the speaker, and the voice is authentic, the story isn’t new; pain isn’t new, especially not in poetry.  We already know that the poems aren’t focusing on any clear “story,” but it is important to understand that they also are not focusing on that somewhat “ordinary” emotional intensity as much as they are focusing on the distance and loneliness that create the pain.
    This, we realize then, is the book’s project:  to explore the distance in relationships.  Northrop writes always with that pane of glass in the poem or with the actual couple “just beyond the realm of the painting . . . their clothes / cast off at the edge of a sea,” the only sign we have that they are there at all.  Similar to the lovers who only appear by the description of their cast-off clothes, if we read carefully, we will notice that even when two characters are in the same poem, they are never actually “there” together:  there is the story of a countess and her murder victims, all dead and “disposed of” far from her; a speaker in one poem remembers someone she used to live with in an apartment; a speaker in another poem hears a neighbor through the walls playing the piano. 
    In keeping with the theme of absence, the title poem of the book, “Things Are Disappearing Here,” ruminates over the mysterious disappearance of dogs and fathers: “. . . our fathers / fly off, a whole flotilla fills the sky, // their jackets and ties flapping // like the pages of books the (sic) never read.  Our fathers / are disappearing yet they are not // ashamed.”  In fact, “things” aren’t disappearing; people are, dogs are; what is disappearing is the “other” in relationships.  And their absence causes the loneliness and pain that Northrop evokes so well while rarely using such abstract words as “loneliness” and “pain.”
    What is dangerous about this project is that as Northrop explores the distance and absence in relationships, when she focuses too much on the distance and absence, there is a severe lack of tension.  In some ways, this is obvious: it is difficult to create a narrative (or the semblance of a narrative) about two people if one of them isn’t really there; the poem, instead, must become more of a meditation on the absence, on what the story used to be, or what the memory is (which is why many of her poems deal with memory, and most depend on meditation and rhetorical questions).  Northrop acknowledges this predicament in one of her meditations:  “I see there is no narrative arc, no rise, rise, rise, not even a / you, a still place // to put things.” 
    When they are most successful, these poems of absence are only about the speaker and her meditations, rarely about the “you” or other characters (and when they are, their awareness of distance and absence is very clear), and rarely narrative.  In other words, they stay in line with the rest of the poems in the book. Thus, there is an implicit narrative arc throughout the book, a story these poems combine to tell about lost love, absence, memory of a life together, and the way those memories can disappear with time.
    But the poems fail when the relationship between the “I” and “you” disappears from the picture altogether; these poems don’t fit well into the overall project, and they feel a bit emotionally “dead” when held against the tension of the other works in the book.  These poems focus primarily on the “you,” or “they”; in other words, there is very little implicit relationship in them because only one character is the focus.  “Aspens,” for instance, is an extended description of pine trees and how a “you” would describe them:

        You would say they are white
        They are not white
        Although their secret is
        A private cleanliness

        You would say the sound
        Their leaves make is slight
        It is not slight the sound
        Of the leaves is the sound
        Of very small stones
        Rolled under the tide
        A sound that’s kept you awake
        On certain nights haunted

        As if on a back stair
        Or here at the window
        Drawn again by the meadow
        Thin transparent cold

    These second and third-person poems stall in the act of description — in this case, it is of the aspens — and without a relationship to imply tension as in the rest of the book, as readers, we can feel emotionally removed from the poem compared to the way we become involved with the characters in the other poems. 
    One could argue that there is an implied “I” in a poem like “Aspens,” that the speaker is in fact arguing with the “you” about the sound and sight of the trees, and although the “I” doesn’t literally appear in the poem as it does in other poems, it still exists.  Thus it can be said that the argument in the poem creates a relationship and tension and we begin to see these two people (the speaker and the “you”) as people who have a history of disagreeing, so much so that the speaker can speak for the “you” and predict how the conversation about the trees would develop.  One can also contend that the symbolic windowpane appears at the end of this poem, as well, to combine with the argument in the poem and remind us of the distance/absence relationships common throughout the book.
    I don’t deny these readings; however, this poem — and others like it — does not compel me in the way the other poems in Things Are Disappearing Here do.  The adjectives and imagery are much less vivid than those in her other poems, and the speaker has a much subtler voice.  In another book by another poet, this would be a virtue, but it is difficult to read poems such as “Things Are Disappearing Here” and “Three Women,” which virtually give us a punch in the gut, and then compare them to tame, forgettable poems like “Aspens.”
    Northrop should have taken advice from a line in one of her own poems when putting together this manuscript:  “Maintain, / maintain.  To appear // is to escape.”  This book is all about absence, so it would seem that poems like “Aspens” that are missing the vividness of major “players,” so to speak, would fit into that theme nicely; however, what I have found is that Northrop most successfully produces feelings of absence when a person both appears and is not there in a poem and the speaker spends a few lines, somewhere, speaking to the absence (whether it’s through meditation or addressing the absence).  Without those things, the poem becomes emotionally flat.
    Thankfully, these “flat” poems are very few and far between, and although one could argue that they should probably not have made it into the book at all, they do not ruin the reading experience and are simple enough to skip over on subsequent reads.  In all, the bulk of Things Are Disappearing Here has proven once again that Northrop is an iconic poet:  unique, timeless, and stunning.

Things Are Disappearing Here, Kate Northrop. Persea, 2007. ISBN: 0892553340 $14.00


© by Kristin Abraham


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