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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Ann Silsbee's First Book of Poetry




. . . no one reading this collection would be tempted to hurry 
through these meditations sprinkled with a few dramatic monologues. 
Most are quietly understated, turning on moments of private ritual, 
observation, and memory, yet each calls attention to its subject 
through brilliant intellection, and to its making 
through the requirements of achieved art.

Orioling, Ann Silsbee's first collection, was published in 2003 by Red Hen Press.  It received their 2001 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award.  Because the poems in Orioling are so caredully wrought — the sonic devices resonate intricately, the images radiate — reading has us adjust ourselves to the states-of-being required for their composition, or so I imagine, for the lyric speaker we encounter presents herself as someone who has stilled her mind and opened her heart, trained her eye and her ear, found, amid a tragic sense of life, true notes of celebration.
     I read Orioling first shortly after it was released in August 2003, the month Ann Silsbee died.  Often I think of the opening lines of a poem by Emily Dickinson, "Death sets a Thing significant / The Eye had hurried by " . . . although no one reading this collection would be tempted to hurry through these meditations sprinkled with a few dramatic monologues.  Most are quietly understated, turning on moments of private ritual, observation, and memory, yet each calls attention to its subject through brilliant intellection, and to its making through the requirements of achieved art.
     At times in a Silsbee poem we find wordplay, experimental punctuation, elision and, on occasion, a tough satiric edge.  This last is true in "Cruising the September Fields."  The title suggests a contemporary pastoral — instead we are presented with a neighbor "who can't walk anymore," who chews up hills with an earthmover the poet sees as a "chugging stegosaurus" that "crushes seedlings in the dirt, / leaves his toeprint chain bleeding green."  Written in quatrains, the first presents an example of Silsbee's musical allusions as well as her control of cadence and rhythm: 

          My neighbor names his earthmover
          Heavy Metal.  It's his mount, his strum, 
          his beat, his key of drums, his hymn.
          Every day, he rides its time.

Notice, among several other effects, that of alliterating as well as consonating on the letter "m."  Most obvious, of course, is the repetition of "his," combined with additional echoes in "Heavy," "hymn," and "he," and the assonance on "a" and "u."  This kind of careful working can be found throughout the poems in this collection.  Silsbee studied at Cornell with A.R. Ammons.  They share affinities in their vision of how the processes in the natural world map isomorphically onto human emotion and thought, but it is here, in this attention to the intricate play of sound, to the larger rhythms of subject in relation to structure, that I locate Ammons' influence most clearly.
     Poems of memory are lifted beyond the personal and the quotidian through repetition and elegant phrasing.  I've long had a preference for poets who trouble the surface of their poems, who eschew the American plain style.  In Silsbee's work there's something more Irish or Welsh that emerges: the intricate play of closely clotted consonants, the chiming and echoing of a guttural "k" (for example) moved from initial to medial to final position within words of close proximity.
     Ann Silsbee, a classical pianist and composer as well as a poet, takes surface play — the deft and frequent use of sound devices, including syntactical variations, simple repetitions and rhyme — about as far as one can imagine doing while retaining coherence.  At times there is such a tinkling effect, I begin to hear a harpsichord, at other times the sounds are deeply mournful, and I am put in mind of oboe or cello.  It's obvious, knowing Silsbee's other art, to think this way, and such impressions are supported throughout her work by numerous allusions to instruments, sounds, composers, musical notation and so on.
     A lover and astute observer of husband, children, parents, sister and brother, of the natural world, its weathers, seasons, creatures, Silsbee is a sensualist and a quiet ecstatic, praiseful yet not without an undertone of sorrow.  Sometimes figured as "drought" or "a cold north wind," and encoded in dirge or fugue-like sounds, darker moments play counterpoint to praise and songs of release and joy.  This is clear in a poem such as "Old Willa Speaks Out," in which the persona claims she keeps a "small stone wedged" in her shoulder that "speaks / its own stony language, a tongue / whose words you learn not to say."
     Silsbee's particular genius is most apparent in short lyrics, especially those in which the speaker's subjectivity merges with the sensuous reality she is experiencing, when the boundaries between outer and inner landscape are most porous.  "Moult" is such a poem, and this one, as is true of three or four others in this collection, has no punctuation other than initial capitalization and cadence is modulated with white space:


          Under some June suns you want to be alone
          the weight of light almost too bright to bear
          You shed some clothes to breathe     and shoes
          and step out of day into dusk     Around you
          woods unfold     Trees slide by     The silk of dark
          slips its skin inside yours from soles to scalp
          All your pores flare wide     freeing fine hairs
          along your arms and the back of your neck
          to lift toward the slightest shift of air
          Caterpillars munch softly in the leaves
          overhead     and a nearby owl drops
          rounded stones in the still pond of your mind
          opening out rings to the farthest rim
          returns to you as if a deep low gong
          were rung     the love-song of bullfrogs
          down in the mud among roots of water-iris
          thrumming on and on like your whole heart

So typical of Silsbee to assonate on the inaugural vowel, "u" ("under," "June," "suns"), then turn to consonance with "weight," "light," and "bright" in the next line.  As the speaker moves through the landscape, shedding clothes and shoes, the "woods unfold," the "Trees slide by."  Speaker and reader have entered the meditative realm of a walker who dissolves the frame of the body's bounds: "The silk of dark / slips its skin inside yours."  When "a nearby owl drops / rounded stones in the still pond of your mind," the union of outside and inside is complete, a motion reinforced by the "thrumming" of the bullfrogs that goes "on and on" as the human heart beats.  Here in "Moult," as in so many of the poems in Orioling, we have the deepest kind of personal meditative lyric, one that celebrates the richness of a human sensibility in sympathetic union with the natural world.  This is the Romantic Sublime written in the manner of the moment, and Silsbee is in the tradition of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and their heir, Ammons.  Her work speaks strikingly to a late Romantic worldview that nonetheless sees, and is appalled by, the less-than-romantic destruction of the natural world, and of the artifacts of human creation.  (One poem commemorates the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha At Bamiyan.)
     In our cynical age, love poems written without a note of irony or disparagement, are not always appreciated, even when they are done well.  In "You Touch My Face" the speaker addresses a lover who has returned after a long journey during which time the speaker has experienced "all that has happened here, the children / the scorched house . . . ."  Here are the concluding stanzas: 

          Later, when we lie together in the dark,
          your palms find the cavity in my cheeks,
          feather my dry eyelashes with threads
          of south wind, climb my shoulder-crags,
          the outcrops of my ribs.  Around us rain
          sheets the eaves—through its noise we hear

          brook roaring over rocks in the garden.
          Underground waters run through me,
          your hands like roots in my grief,
          reaching into the widening cracks,
          the pores of earth where growing things
          catch hold again and push for light.

     These lines illustrate what I mean by Silsbee's understated quality.  The metaphors of the physical world for the human body are common enough, although rendered with originality.  The beloved's breath "feather[s] my dry eyelashes with threads / of south wind," the brook heard "roaring over rocks in the garden" moves into the speaker's body to become "underground waters [that] run through me."  The lover's touch becomes "like roots" that reach into the "widening cracks" of the speaker's grief, then the poem concludes with the generative imagery of "growing things" that "push for light."  In a lesser poet, more would have been made of the anguish suffered during the lover's absence.  Here all that emotion is stated in the negative, "as if all that has happened . . . / . .  . were not choked in my throat."
     Reading Silsbee, say for fifteen or twenty minutes at a stretch, I find myself smiling, aflood with memories, more peaceful, centered, joyful.  Yes, that is it.  Joy comes forth, and as I turn the page from poem to poem, my thought is the same, "I want to come back to that one," for this is work that rewards the reader by fully occupying the mind and resonating through the body.  At the same time a vision is conveyed as Silsbee's sensibility reveals itself across a number of poems.  Readers with unhurried eyes will realize that here is a poet who achieved the balance of staying vibrant, sensitive, and realistically attuned to both the creative and destructive forces operating in our culture, while, at the same time, mastering the art required to represent her experience thoroughly, delicately, beautifully.

Silsbee, Ann. Orioling.  Los Angeles, California: Red Hen Press, 2003.  ISBN: 1-888996-61-7  $13.95

© by Gray Jacobik


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