Princeton Univ. Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-691-14610-2 $16.95
Reviewed by Marilyn McCabe
What Is Sought: A Review of Kathleen Graber’s The Eternal City
I go through periods in which I pick up book after book of poetry and think “eh,” or “that was okay,” or “one poem was good but the rest not so much,” or even, “come on, really?” And then through sheer persistence I’ll find a book in which almost every poem makes me fall down, so dizzied am I by the world spinning and resolving itself in new ways. Such is the experience I had with Kathleen Graber’s The Eternal City. Chosen by editor Paul Muldoon for Princeton University Press’s Series of Contemporary Poets, the book is barely able to contain these thought-full poems that spool outward into the world around the poet, both the world of the world and the world of the mind, and curl back on themselves. I know I sound a bit swoony, but listen, this is why I persist. Only the poetry art form can swirl my word-loving mind this way, as much as I love other music and painting and dance.
Given my proclivities, how could I not love a book that begins with a poem entitled “Tolle! Lege!” or “Pick it up! Read!”? This is the message Augustine believed he was being given by his God in the voice of children at play outside his window. And so Graber entices me into her book of play for mortal stakes. In “Tolle! Lege!” she picks up a chair, a refrigerator shelf, a book of William James, Saint Augustine’s Confessions, a mirror, and watches the leaves being blown through the neighborhood outside her window. These fragments are loosely bound by image and idea, sometimes so loosely that they fly apart, but regather, as scattered leaves in the wind’s eddy. After this titular reference to Augustines road-to-Damascus moment, the poem begins:
In truth I have less faith in the gods than I do in the chair
I passed one night set out with the trash on John Street…
looked like some primitive technology, a fragment
of the heavy plough scientists dug from a Danish bog
the wooden wheels they knew it had had having long since
turned to peat. What I know of conversion
I learned while cleaning the sticky shelves of the icebox,
a glass sheet exploding as one end hit the sink’s hot suds.
For a single moment, as fissures crackled along the body,
I held something both whole & wholly shattered,
then, form gave way, it broke a second time, & was gone…
She turns the objects over in her mind, all the while thinking of faith, the ways in which one might stumble upon it, the primitive, visceral shattering seems to have caused others, considering her own faith in the things of this world, their deceptive solidity.
She then looks out her window to watch a lawn service at work tidying the autumn leaves, and thinks of a mirror she smashed once, her own image swept into pieces, the seemingly solid self dissolved. Here is where she loses me in this poem, but I presume it’s my own ignorance, and I careen forward into the arms again of Augustine, considering “aenigma,” mysterious likeness.
…Aenigma, he writes suggesting the face
in the mirror, though his mirrors would have been bronze
& someone somewhere would have spent all of his days
pounding the world into something that small & shiny
& thin. And still, it is not easy to make out what is sought…
Then she brings back the chair, its turned spindles, and the landscapers and the settling leaves. But nothing is quite the same. “…the disquieted self…seems always now/to be awaiting its own return. The soul, Augustine reminds us,/loving itself, loves what is lost….” And she leaves us with Augustine’s imagining a shepherd having found a lost lamb, transporting it home, imagining the lamb bleating in the boy’s ear. I think of Picasso’s poignant, roughworked “Man with Lamb,” the man’s lanky, uncertain stance, the struggling lamb. The disquieted self.
The eponymous poem is a series of linked poems, the last line of one beginning the next, set off by epilogues from the philosopher/emperor Marcus Aurelius. Subtitled as books one through twelve, these blocky, prose-like poems are boxes in which the narrator sifts through odds and ends of things, her aunt’s old buttons, ribbons, shells, all the while meditating on Marcus’s meditations about history, the self, the work of man and of the gods and the meaning of that work. The things of the poems are, in a way, talismans against meaninglessness, her attention to their details giving the lie to the plea, in “Book Five,” “…O Rain, rain: that I may live so long as to discover what/perhaps only a Caesar can know: that all of this has been for nothing.” Rather what resonates throughout these little boxes is this, from “Book Twelve”: “Late in the drama, I touch, as if it were holy, whatever remains.” The Eternal City in these poems is, much like Zagajewski’s Lvov, a place of imagination and history, mysterious, dear, and never quite accessible.
With long lines of no fewer than five stresses, she winds her way through personal experience, literal reference, and vivid details. I think of Levis, his “widening spell”; I think of Goldbarth, his looping inquiries Several of the poems in this, the author’s second book, are termed “letters,” but all read a bit as such -- these are notes home from a traveling friend, intimate musings of an alone if not necessarily lonely observer, a mind in the world, alert and searching. I will read her again. And again.
Marilyn McCabe’s work has been published in a variety of literary magazines, including Painted Bride Quarterly, Nimrod, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Rhino, and she has received awards through the New York State Council on the Arts and through the Adirondack Center for Writing. She recently completed her MFA in Poetry at New England College. Her latest published work can be seen in the online magazine Praxilla: