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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Like an optometrist using a phoropter (that mechanism
which allows multiple lenses to be clicked in and out
of place), Metres optimizes our vision as we see the world
refracted now through this poem, now through that one. 

Poetry is an optic, a technology that affords us a better visioning and understanding of the world.  William Wordsworth knew this when he famously proclaimed in “Tintern Abbey,” “We see into the life of things.”  Louis Zukofsky knew this as he laid down the principles of Objectivism in his influential essay “An Objective”: “(Optics) - The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus... inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.”  And this is Philip Metres’ crucial wager in To See the Earth, an impressive debut collection which helps us see our teeming, globalized world with the clarity of a keen poetic intelligence.  Indeed, Metres’ finely crafted poems act as necessary correctives to the tunnel vision of provincialism and the myopia of presentism by bringing into view a range of shifting spaces, perspectives, and temporalities: we see Amsterdam from the point of view of an Iraqi refugee; we see a post-Soviet and McDonalized Moscow interspersed with meditations on Vietnam (the poet’s father served there as a Naval advisor during the Tet Offensive); we see ancient Japanese scrolls in dialectical tension with a panoramic photograph of Hiroshima after the bomb.  Metres has long been a valuable contributor to the poetry world—as a translator of the contemporary Russian poets Sergey Gandlevsky and Lev Rubinstein and as the author of the timely study Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 (University of Iowa Press, 2007).  It is thus a treat for us to have available his first full-length collection of poetry which benefits from all his talents as a literary translator—his sensitivity to language, his ear for rhythm—as well as the critical sophistication of his scholarship.
    These poems, which deftly weave together personal and public history, are impressive in their formal variety and, as a group, attest to the versatility of Metres’ poetic repertoire.  To accompany the numerous lyric poems in elegantly rendered blank verse, there is: a “Post-Soviet Sestina”; a ballad about the poet’s Lebanese ancestor Skandar ibn Mitri Abourjaili; a poem in the guise of a language primer; an epistolary poem addressed to the poet’s sister; a concrete poem about memory (in the shape of a Russian nesting doll); a prose poem (Metres calls it a “spectroscopy”) that acts as a previous poem’s commentary; a dramatic monologue in the voice of Palestinian artist Vera Tamari; and various experimental forms which expressively use unconventional spacing and punctuation.  It is as if each type of poem here were a particular lens, specifically made to provide a particular focus, a particular wisdom.  Like an optometrist using a phoropter (that mechanism which allows multiple lenses to be clicked in and out of place), Metres optimizes our vision as we see the world refracted now through this poem, now through that one. 
    But in spite of their precision, these “poetic lenses” refuse to fetishize a mastery of technique and are circumspect enough to register what eludes our senses, what—according to the stunning loco-descriptive poem “Echolocation Islands”— “cannot [be] fix[ed] into form.”  The desideratum for Metres is not so much the “well wrought urn” or the poem-as-polished-artifact but rather a poetic lens which, despite its artful construction, shows the traumatizing wear of history.  So in the third section of “Echolocation Islands” which considers Solovki, a notorious labor camp that operated on an island in the White Sea, Metres gestures toward the unrepresentable—the spectral voices that have been violently elided from the historical record:   

        and: (

        The dead voices loiter, edge
        the island unsighted. History is

        the sea slapping the mute shore,
        sapping the shore of the shore.

Perhaps this “sea of history” is the same sea dramatically illustrated on the book’s front cover.  In the monochrome composition by Russian photographer Andrey Chezhin, the apocalyptic image of an inundated St. Petersburg prepares the reader for the gravitas and severity of the book’s subject matter. 
    Yet even as Metres unflinchingly gazes at the horrors of history (elsewhere in the volume he says, “History / is part cartoon, part bloodied tongue”), he also passionately gives voice to a utopian desire, one which is foreshadowed by the book’s epigraph.  Here we get not Walter Benjamin’s melancholy angel of history but Wallace Stevens’ “necessary angel of earth” who says in the poem “Angel Surrounded by Paysans”:

        Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,

        Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
        And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone

        Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
        Like watery words awash; like meanings said

        By repetitions of half-meanings…

Upon reading this volume, it becomes urgently clear that this ability to “see the earth again” is a necessary condition for “envision[ing] utopia” (a phrase from Metres’ “On 24th and South, Philadelphia”); for preventing a disastrous calamity such as the one portrayed on the book’s cover; and for attaining what Metres movingly calls in the penultimate poem, “For the Fifty (Who Made PEACE with Their Bodies),” “the dreaming disarmed body.”  In “Bat Suite,” the book’s final poem, Stevens’ necessary angel reappears as a bat caught in the speaker’s home, “an uninvited guest” whose “fluttering / hand” (so much like the hand of John Ashbery’s Parmigianino)

                                …offers itself
        neither in aid nor in greeting,
        just itself, turning on invisible
                    marionette strings
        of sound, conductor and orchestra
        for a suite
             above our human octaves.

Even if this suite—like the dead and disembodied voices of history—is inaudible to our human faculties, To See the Earth bids us to pay attention and to imagine its ineffable presence.  

To See the Earth, Philip Metres. Cleveland State University Press, 2008. ISBN: 1880834817 $15.95

© by Michael Leong


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