Sunday, April 20, 2008

"where the children are not"

Reading Nomina, Karen Volkman's latest, intermingled with Larry King's interview of the women from the polygamist cult and the contrast is informative, both ways. For Volkman (whose "Crash's Law" is one of my favorite books and "Spar" not even close), there is a lesson to glean from these women, which is: undecorated, simple, stark, and powerfully emotional. The lesson for the polygamy women from Volkman is: risk within boundaries, yes, but with bold imagination, love of language and rhetorical nerve. It was astonishing to witness the impovershment of language and the mechanical, sometimes frightened, demeanor of these women. When one of them fought back tears while showing the cameras "where the children are not" it was hard not to be teary also. Meanwhile, Volkman has managed to do everything possible with the language except elicit emotion. She indeed is using boundaries (the sonnet form) to amp up the poems' risks via compression, but what she does instead of accessing something human and of interest to the reader, is to show off her considerable talent. Why is it so difficult to use language in the service of emotion? These poems are dazzlements of cleverness, energetic and lush with sound (and I do love sound!), but ultimately, empty towns. Where are the citizens? There are exceptions, and this one on the Academy of American Poets website is one that engages me beyond mere admiration:

Sonnet [Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,]
by Karen Volkman

Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,
the earth, blue egg, in its seeping shell
dispensing damage like a hollow hell
inchling weeping for a minor sea

ticking its tidelets, x and y and z.
The blue beneficence we call and spell
and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well
of constant water, deepening a thee,

a thou and who, touching every what—
and in the or, a shudder in the cut—
and that you are, blue mirror, only stare

bluest blankness, whether in the where,
sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught
drowns and booms and vowels. I will not.

I do love how it recalls so much of poetic tradition (Hopkins, Stevens, Dylan Thomas, the Romantics and sonneteers) while still being new. Masterful lines here, and the book as a whole is highly accomplished, more than worthy of admiration. I just want something human, some emotional core, at least some of the time.