Contributor’s Marginalia: Nancy Reddy on “Keynote” by Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman’s stunning, sonically precise “Keynote” conjures a landscape that passes from our vision as quickly as we glimpse it. The poem begins with Wiman’s speaker addressing an audience of “Elks,/ antlerless but arousable all the same” in a dreamlike proclamation of “the paradoxical intoxicating joy” of the Void which is quickly swept up in a description of

infinities of fields our very natures
commanded us to cross,

the Sisyphean satisfaction of a landscape
adequate to loss –

That last couplet haunts me. It calls up the habit – familiar, I suspect, to many poets – of looking to landscape for consolation, as well as the hope that words can render grief and sorrow, if not exactly manageable, then at least intelligible.

As I-10 traverses south Louisiana, it crosses long expanses of water. It’s an improbable, unearthly landscape, marked by the trunks of bald cypress, silvered in standing water, hawks and herons nesting in the marshlands. The shoreline here is ragged, the southern border of the state feathering into the Gulf, the land losing a little to the sea each year. On the eastern approach to New Orleans, the six miles of slender roadways that make up the Twin Span are suspended just above Lake Pontchartrain, the clearance between water and roadway just 8 ½ feet most of the way across.

(Replace is with was. The storm surge of Hurricane Katrina pulled bridge segments from their piers, rendering the lake again impassable.)

If the terrain here seems unsteady, uncertain, that’s because it is. This instability is a crucial fact of the geological history of south Louisiana. The shoreline moves, and the boundary between soil and swamp is not entirely solid. It’s a liminal space, with its bayous and marshlands and gravel backroads, the kind of place where the seam between life and death is thin, where the boundary between this world and the next seems porous.

I lived in New Orleans the year before Hurricane Katrina, and I was five days into my second year of teaching when we evacuated. I’d been teaching English at a high school in New Orleans East, over the Industrial Canal, a world away from the nice uptown neighborhood my roommates and I had chosen for its proximity to bars, restaurants, parade routes. When, in May of the year following the hurricane I again drove east to my old school, the neighborhood was dark, roofs still blue-tarped as they had been in the weeks right after Katrina. The Taco Bell and the gas station across the street still closed, the school’s parking lot still full of parked cars, silted to their door handles. Inside my classroom, the waterline reached about my waist. Below: water and dirt smeared across the cinderblocks, workbook pages and library books scattered across the linoleum tiles. I have a photograph of Rita Dove’s “Adolescence” curled by storm water but still legible. And above the waterline: my neat handwriting, the date and a prompt for students’ journals hopefully inscribed and untouched by hurricane. I took the laminated sign that marked “Ms. Reddy’s room,” a champagne flute from the last year’s prom. I took photographs. The place escapes me anyway.

I write this here because it reminds me of the promise in Wiman’s poem – the hope that landscape could prove some recompense to loss. For me, this landscape – the silt and sediment of South Louisiana, the storm-ravaged city – seems both a site of loss and a representation of it. Perhaps I hope that rendering it accurately could somehow recuperate that loss. It’s a foolish idea. It’s also, to a large extent, the history of the pastoral: when language feels weak, inadequate to loss, we turn to landscape.

In the end, Wiman’s poem witnesses the sweeping destruction of both people – the speaker sees “James Wesson whiten/ to intact ash,” “wren-souled Mary Flynn die again/ in Buzz’s eyes” – and landscape – “the slush-puppy stand/ the little pier at Towle Park Pond” are both ruined. The witnesses to the poem’s eponymous keynote are all wracked, “like a huge claw,” by time. In the end, time, natural disaster, illness, the ordinary passing of a life – all ravage what we love. In the face of such destruction, no landscape really could be adequate to the task. Few poems, either. We try.

Nancy Reddy

Nancy Reddy’s work has appeared in Smartish Pace, Anti-, Memorious, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is currently a doctoral candidate in composition and rhetoric.

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Intrigue at an Impasse

August 11, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Callie Siskel on “Magnolia” by Alessandra Lynch

What first drew me to Alessandra Lynch’s “Magnolia” was its stunning premise and first line: “A wedding broke out in the magnolia—” Often, first lines seem too desperate, begging us to suspend our disbelief. Lynch’s first line doesn’t give us the chance to protest. Her language is figurative but also matter-of-fact. She gives us metaphor and narrative in one fell swoop. She supplies color without adjectives and figures without people. She tempers beauty with brusqueness.

What I soon realized was that the poem delivers on what the first lines promises. “Magnolia” is built on the strength of its bold and unpredictable images: “The bells hung upside down. They’d choked/ on their own tongues.” The speaker doesn’t enter the poem until the third stanza. When she does she remains in the shadow of the magnolia, whose power is not supplanted by her presence. Lynch makes this clear syntactically and visually. The sentence that introduces the speaker inverts the subject and verb: “Hung too, on unspeaking terms/ with the air, I acknowledge the impasse—” The stark memory that follows the wind lifting the blossoms is indented so that it manifests dependence and vulnerability.

The memory is of the speaker as a four-year-old girl, holding up her skirt for her mother’s lover. She painfully remembers “trying to woo him.” The image in isolation fosters a series of connections, not unlike branches, that the reader can choose to follow or not to follow. “Magnolia” doesn’t have to cohere to be successful. Like all good poems, it resists summary and explanation.

Still, I felt inclined to read the signs, perhaps because the speaker, herself, is at an impasse. Though the wedding is happening in the magnolia, the speaker is wearing a “dress of paralysis.” The union of these two words represents one of Lynch’s strengths. Her poem is not determined by rhyme, but like-sounds suggest a world—just out of reach—where elements coalesce.

The speaker seems to be at wedding that is taking place in her mind. Either she is contemplating marriage or the idea is being forced upon her. The impasse is partly the memory of a childhood triangle: the speaker, her mother, and her mother’s lover. Where is the speaker’s father? Where is the speaker’s lover? The absence of husbands permeates the poem and makes the desperate statement, “Maybe I don’t want/ a voice at all,” even more poignant and complex. Perhaps the speaker’s own voice has been corrupted or usurped by men. Of course, this is an oversimplification, and luckily, it remains unsaid.

Lynch knows when she’s gone far enough. Just then the speaker returns to the magnolia and trails off, this time to a world where human voices have no power or purpose. “Magnolia” ends with three elliptical phrases, but after reading it we are left with definite images and associations. “A wedding broke out in the magnolia.” Pure and erotic, calm and urgent, “Magnolia” is a poem that refuses to settle but still manages to leave its pollen on our hands.

Callie Siskel

Callie Siskel lives in Baltimore and teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, where she received her MFA in May 2013. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Yale Review, 32 Poems, Passages North, New Criterion, Unsplendid, and other journals. She is currently working on her first book of poems.

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Prose Feature: “Poetry and Community” by Bruce Bond

August 8, 2014

In a cave in southern Germany, archeologists found what they believe might be the oldest surviving musical instrument, a flute made of vulture bone, and they thought, so that’s it, that’s why the Homo Sapiens survived and the Neanderthals, who were physically superior, did not. Not the mighty flute, of course, though it no doubt […]

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Dream as Canvas

July 28, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Jordan Windholz on “Ledger of Joseph” by Kevin Thomason I love a poem that has me sliding along language’s surfaces of sound, and so I love Kevin Thomason’s “Ledger of Joseph.” I can read this poem again and again just to feel its syllables in my mouth, to hear them knock around in my ear. The […]

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Prose Feature: “To Go On Living There With Everything: A Review of Joshua Robbins’s Praise Nothing (University of Arkansas Press, 2013)” by Michele Poulos

July 25, 2014

In his debut collection Praise Nothing, Joshua Robbins orients us both to the need for seeking greater spiritual awareness and the disappointments of such seeking, as in the lines “Nothing / is new here under the sun / beating down in mid-April / where no one is looking for the infinite.” Throughout an array of […]

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