by Lynn Schmeidler
85 pages, Veliz Books, 2018
Review by Kathryn Weld
“We all feel / suspended over a drop into nothingness,[i]” wrote Dean Young, in “Scarecrow on Fire.” Each of us, despite a trenchant solidity in the daily experience of oneself, comes to this gut-wrenching moment of recognition: hour by hour, day by day, perhaps even minute by minute, we are in a continual state of reinvention and simultaneous with all that regeneration, we are also soon to be gone. Occasionally, when this realization penetrates deeply, we realize exactly how extraordinary it is. Indeed, what draws many of us, what drew me, to poetry, was the thrill of expansion, the musicality of witness that accompanies the successful reading of a poem that takes on these hard truths. We believe in our subjective continuity until there is an instant of rupture: the fragile illusion exposed—internally, by quiet wonder, a rocking of the foundations of the world—or sometimes, revealed by a shock that delivers an external shake-up, as when the former child-author and prodigy, Barbara Newhall Follett (1914-?) disappeared on December 7, 1939.
Daughter of critic Wilson Follett and children's book author Helen Follett, Barbara Newhall Follett acquired fame at the age of twelve, when Knopf published her novel, House Without Windows. Home-schooled by her father, Follett began writing poetry at age four, received a typewriter at her seventh birthday party, and was known to demand that she be left undisturbed by her family to work on her novel. The title House Without Windows refers to the natural world that Follett adored. A second novel, The Voyage of the Norman D., drew on the young Follett's experiences on board a schooner, and followed one year later, in 1928, to critical acclaim. That same year, (Barbara was thirteen) her father, Wilson Follett, left his wife for a younger woman, leaving the family without financial support. Forced by the economic hardships of the depression to seek work, and devastated by her father's desertion, Barbara Newhall Follett became a secretary. She produced two more book manuscripts, but these were never published. In 1933, when she was nineteen years old, Follett married Nickerson Rogers, a man who shared her love of travel and the out-of-doors. Initially happy, Follett gradually came to believe Rogers was unfaithful. On a winter day in 1939, she left their home in Brookline, Massachusetts with a modest amount of cash, and disappeared. Rogers waited two weeks to notify the police, and four months to file a missing person’s report. Barbara Newhall Follett was never found, nor heard from again, nor was any evidence uncovered that might clarify whether or not a crime had been committed.
Based on Follett's life, Lynn Schmeidler's beautifully complex new book, History of Gone, skillfully probes the fundamental dilemma of identity and disappearance with poems collected in sections titled, “clean sneak (n):,” “THE SHE'S,” “THE I'S,” “THE LISTS,” “THE ADDRESSES,” “THE INTERVIEW,” “THE ERASURE.” Drawing deeply on details from Follett's four novels and letters, and laced with her own ingenuity, Schmeidler gives us a Barbara Newhall Follett for the current century, wise in the complexities of male-dominated culture, savvy about her own romantic naturalism, inflected with uncertainty about existence, and conversant with the diction of modern science:
like I am, dynamically unstable –
any small perturbation
only grows over time.”
For some poets, such dynamic instability is enriching; it fills the imagination and renders each poem an act of faith, a writing into the void. Consider Monica Ferrell: “ I rise like a red balloon, untethered and vacant. / …/ Holy; like a fragrance, bodiless, without referent.[ii]” Consider Major Jackson: “... the great paragraphs / of dust, which also carry motes / of my existence. I have not disappeared.”[iii] So too here, but History of Gone—like a point in orbit bounding from one chaotic attractor to another—visits worlds that are in turn existential, political, domestic, romantically natural, literary. Likewise, narrative voice varies from first person singular, to third person singular, to first person plural, amplifying perspectives.
Questions of identity have a specific locus in gender, and make no mistake, this is a feminist book: “Everywhere you look there's a fingerbone of some gone woman.” Probing Follett's sense of loss at her mentor/father's abandonment, Schmiedler speaks for Barbara with longing and vulnerability, but this ache simultaneously purrs with irony that a woman of such talent feels the lack of an identity in the absence of the man:
there's a great mountain called We
nights for bivouacking
days for belays.
In Portrait Studies Without You there's no echo or foreground.”
So, too, on Follett's failed marriage, Barbara’s lament is also a nuanced, satirical critique of gendered power dynamics:
“MY JOB IS TO CONVINCE YOU
by staying put and loving not only you but the leaf belly-up at our door
rust stains on the sink
More than a call for solidarity and sisterhood, Schmeidler's premise, “We need lost women like the ancients needed fire, hot coals carried in chaga mushrooms to burn slowly without flaming or going out,” should be considered in the context of the metaphor and lineage. Without fanfare, Schmeidler draws us in on conversations begun by poets such as Lucille Clifton, in “The Lost Women[iv]”, “i need to know their names / those women i would have walked with / jauntily…. ” These conversations shift and flicker, changing direction like a flame, investigating with vigor and eclectic diction the paradoxes of being a woman and a writer in a male-dominated culture:
“Alone is a feeling a tawny nurse shark
like when she realizes in a dream she's only dreaming
and wakes up improvising there's no female equivalent of the word virile
on a bassline made of rain.”
In the passage above, note the use of the embedded italicized phrase, a hallmark of Schmeidler's style. These italicized drop-ins function to disorient the reader just slightly, by interrupting the rhythm, like the “mindfulness bell,” or a clap on the shoulders from the Roshi to help the practitioner return to the alertness of the moment. Sometimes with italics, sometimes without, Schmeidler lards her language with popular culture and literature, while maintaining a thematic link to the question of identity, incorporating, as motifs, not only memes like the one above, but also poets such as Emily Dickinson, Lord Byron, Nostradamus, Robert Louis Stevenson; as well drop-ins from Q&A interviews, an unattributed saying found on a refrigerator magnet and Wikipedia, among others. The effect of this grounding is both to insinuate and to celebrate the absurd and temporal randomness of meaning. Indeed, in a remarkable found poem, “WHAT SOME POETS SAY WHEN TALKING ABOUT THEIR POEMS” we learn:
“I was looking (am looking) for the meeting place between the material and the gone.
They were talking about feet blisters.
I've been trying all of my life to do something else.
A calm sauce is rare.
So I made a ridiculous choice. Of course I fail.
More than anything, though, this … is a language picnic.”
Barbara's statement of farewell:
“As usual, I hardly felt the cold
or felt it as I felt my own tongue in my mouth
Freezing quiets the mind. I had never been so calm. I lay on my back
head cradled in brown leaves.”
echos not only Emily Dickinson’s “Not that she was gone / But Remoteness travelled / On her Face and Tongue[v],” but also the Zen teachings of Dogen Zenji:
“A snowy heron
on the snowfield
where the winter grass is unseen
in its own figure[vi].”
Like inset gems on a worked stone box, these allusions collage a surface dense in cultural and historical context, and in so doing serve a purpose beyond ornamentation: they reinforce the baseline question of identity—Barbara's, yours, mine, the poet's, “Tuned to the city of mouths,” that is the root of creative enterprise. It is as if the writer, like an oracle or a translator, listens to an unknown voice and in transcribing that voice is surprised by what appears on the page, and we, as readers, are privileged companions on the journey. “The question she's answering isn't the question asked but still we're curious what she'd going to say.”
This is the drama of the continual unfolding and discovery of the self. In witnessing that process of personal reinvention, fabrication, and myth-making, these poems find a counterpoint to the worldly pain of failed relationship, the betrayal of our social structure and to the devastation of gone: “Nothing bad can ever happen here in the first person singular / present tense.” With wry honesty, optimism and wit, Schmeidler praises and denies: “Welcome to Words Own Her, a life. Just press and flip the pages with an eraser.” How unsettling, how devastating, the loss of this woman with whom we might have walked. How brave, at the same time, even perversely joyful, to use her history to stare clear-eyed into the “meeting place between the material and the gone.”
Kathryn Weld's poems have appeared in journals such as The Midwest Quarterly, Southeast Literary Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Storyscape Journal, Bellevue Literary Review, and Still, The Journal. She earned her MFA in Poetry at Sewanee School of Letters and her Ph.D. in Mathematics at the Graduate Center of CUNY. She is a Professor of Mathematics at Manhattan College.
---------[i] "Scarecrow on Fire" from Fall Higher. Dean Young. Copper Canyon Press. 2011
[ii] “Myths of Disappearance,” from Beasts of the Chase, by Monica Ferrell. Sarabande Books, 2008.
[iii] “On Disappearing.” from Roll Deep, by Major Jackson. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2015.
[iv] “The Lost Women” from Next: New Poems, by Lucille Clifton. BOA Editions Ltd. 1989.
[v] “Now I knew I lost her”, (1274) from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition by Emily Dickinson. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.
[vi] “Bowing Formally,” translated by Brian Unger and Kazuaki Tanahashi. From Moon in a Dewdrop, Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. North Point Press 1985