Stephanie Strickland, True North. University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.
— True North (Hypertext). Eastgate Systems, 1997.
Janet Holmes, The Green Tuxedo. University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.
by Jere Odell
The Ernest Sandeen Prize in Poetry has now awarded its first winners: the 1997 prize to Stephanie Strickland for True North (which also received the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America) and the 1999 prize to Janet Holmes for The Green Tuxedo. Both Strickland and Holmes write adventurous and challenging poetry, yet these are two very different poets and two very different books; the Sandeen Prize has made a good start, open with possibilities.
Stephanie Strickland’s third book of poetry, True North, profits from her talent for writing an integrated book of poetry and not just a loose collection of poems. Though each poem stands on its own, this is a volume of intricate connections. The poems are attached to one another not only by theme and style, but also by vocabulary and argument. True North can be read one poem at a time, or it can be studied and enjoyed by those that favor a multi-layered text. Strickland invites such readers to enter the book, as if on a quest for true north.
True North is comprised of six sections and all but the first are introduced by centered, compass-like poems entitled “True North.” These provide the book’s scaffolding both in theme and order; each describes or prescribes a method by which one could find the absolute direction (with the help of the sun, a stick, some string, and some simple geometry). The first section, “The Mother-Lost World,” functions as a preface. It establishes the book’s agenda and the questions that energize the rest of the text. The book’s first poem “On First Looking into Diringer’s The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind” makes clear the territory Strickland explores, and illuminates the real material consequences of the questions she pursues. The poem begins:
I wanted … a Guneaform—a woman’s form—of writing
and thought, perhaps, Cuneiform it, so tactile that script, palpable
wedges pressed in wet clay: writing “at once,” as a fresco
is painted. But in this book, in the pictographs
that underlie Cuneiform, there is only one sign for woman,
pudendum. Slavegirl and male servant, also
given by genital description.
Man is head, with mouth in it, plus beard.
As the poem continues Strickland documents similar weaknesses in other written codes. A sickness seems to permeate even the most essential and original marks underlying language, for example, “woman” in its hieroglyphic forms is often synonymous with “property” and “quarrel.”
In the following sections the presences of Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Wallace Stevens, the Hag of Beare, and (most prominently) the physicist and mathematician Josiah Willard Gibbs, all serve to address the issue of the difficulty of belief, whether manifest in theologies of personhood, creation myths, or the limits of theological language. Except for the Hag of Beare (who belongs more to “The Mother-Lost World,” both as Mother Goose and as a vision of the space shuttle Challenger) these famous figures belong to a place, Connecticut, and to a temperament, a lust for the theoretical, a trait that is typical, Strickland suggests, of the terrain.
Though a strange cast of characters, each allows Strickland to intensify her focus on the epistemological problems inherent in writing and language without paralyzing her own poetry. With Gibbs, the mind of winter settles on mathematics with an intention toward abstract purities, floating and detached from the imperfect materialities it tries to describe. “Articulate Among Us” makes this evident, a poem in which Strickland contrasts the American (abstract) speech of the Connecticut Valley with “the supremely / articulate among us, Amistad Africans, mutineers for freedom…“ Strickland writes:
Gibbs a prisoner, of his own unwillingness to auction
his mind, who built a mathematical language to make his work more pure—
who made it so pure, it sublimed instantly into zones of power
and remains enthroned there, isolated there.
Gibbs’ theoretical purities lead to the sequence “Numbers Nesting in Numbers-Nesting-In Numbers” which follows “True North 3.” Here, Strickland simultaneously engages Gibbs, the abstract poetry of Stevens, especially “The Snow Man,” while exploring a few mathematical “tropes”: “O Shortcut to What?,” “1 Natural,” “2 Integral,” “3 Rational Numbers,” “4 Real Numbers,” and “5 (Imaginary).” This sequence contains the most adventurous poetry in the book and arguably the most lyrical, as in the beginning of “5 (Imaginary Numbers)”:
I spell it out—
to spell it in; I cast a spell
that puts an end
to all distinction: more including, wider flung, closer spun, more pen-
etrant, or more in-
fusing, if we only knew what
empty space was—the solid part of a table one part in each Quadrillion:
Im Re.Rainna: Im Re.writing the Imaginary
Natural Integral Rational Real
Identical. Crimson. 5. Uprising droplet petals
vitrify: star at the skin
inward in the form
Clearly Strickland’s poetry is full of intellectual strength and stamina and True North demonstrates her ability to write an intricate and ordered book of lyric poetry that merits multiple readings. If you are interested in this aspect of Strickland’s work, you may wish to look at the hypertext version of this volume. There one can find alternate arrangements and explore connections and quotations from poem to poem, word to word, link by link as guided by Strickland’s mapping. The hypertext volume is not difficult to use, a few clicks of the mouse and a couple of key strokes, and it is available in both PC and Mac formats.
• • •
In many ways The Green Tuxedo, Janet Holmes’ second book, belongs to a completely different branch of contemporary American poetry. Whereas the poetry of True North is historically contextualized with an aggressive theoretical focus, sometimes leaving the author’s first person stake in the issues to be inferred from the subtext, in The Green Tuxedo the personal speaks first; over half the book records family history, remembering the author’s father and imagining his youth with the help of diaries and memories. Furthermore, Holmes’ verse is decidedly closer to plain style than is Strickland’s, and her book is more loosely structured. Whereas one will want to reread True North for the continued pleasures of discovering new layers of text and intertext, one will want to reread The Green Tuxedo for its imagistic clarity and narrative irony, to see, to laugh, to ache.
Despite these differences, The Green Tuxedo begins with a problem familiar to Strickland’s readers: the difficulty of using words in a world of complex and shifting realities. The opening poem, “Against the Literal,” considers the difficulties of naming and knowing, and the challenge of writing and reading the book that follows. The poem begins with a plea for simplified, dependable terms:
Of course each shrub and rodent has a name, sometimes more than one, and every weed and every flower and all the sonorous trees,
and the winds too, their mistrals and sciroccos and easts and wests,
but I am telling you to keep them from me a moment: if the gray jay
and the pinyon jay are the same, I don’t need to know yet,
and I most want to be rid of Latin binomials…
The poems that follow, however, do not suspend the complexities of the literal; instead, they reveal these complexities in striking detail.
In the title poem Holmes takes as a mantra a phrase from an Amos ‘n’ Andy exchange. One character says to the other, as a handsome, rich man walks by, “He reminds me of a man who once sold me a green tuxedo.” The startling green tuxedo makes the joke, but for Holmes, the green tuxedo and the multiple meanings of the joke become an assessment of what it feels like to live at the end of this century with racism, “family values,” wars, and various social confusions. Holmes’ use of the joke and the image exemplifies the character of the poetry in her book’s first half. Often Holmes allows the reader to see the world’s features anew. Her poems are rich with irony and (like a man wearing a green tuxedo) they are dressed up, but not for high society: they demonstrate a bold style in a humorous and approachable voice.
As one would expect from a book with this title, many of its poems revolve around a color, as in “The Aquarium,” “The Blue World,” and (most obviously) “Yellow Period.” This poem uses color as a transition from one image or meditative position to the next, a ribbon in wartime, a candle, caution lights, highway stripes, industrial steam, taxis, or most stunningly, a recipe for preserved lemons:
Quarter the lemons—
not all the way through
but so they open out to you, as a bud
unfurls itself in stop-motion, as the mouths
of chicks clamor upwards from the nest: pour salt
into the cloven fruit, and layer them
in a wide-mouthed jar, letting
fresh juice seep into the interstices.
Take care that the jar closes tightly:
each day invert it, and wait—
after a month you will have
preserved lemons to eat,
but all that time you will have the jar
yellow in your kitchen, a bottle
of fractured suns
half the time on its head,
The second section of the book, “The Time Savers,” has a single focus, one man and his family, and is more narrative in structure—each poem has its place in the sequence, adding something to the larger story. The poems vary in tone from obituary and investigative report (two poems are reprinted newspaper articles) to impassioned elegy and lyric meditation. Like the first half of the book, however, “The Time Savers” also has its bold emblematic presence, its green tuxedo — the author’s father, a man who wore “his white dress shirt and tie, creased shoes / serviceably polished … / … his crisp slacks, his dark-striped tie, his French cuffs.” A man whose feet were as “delicate as an invalid’s, uncallused, white, kept in their soft socks / the way the wedding silver lived in its plush wraps in a special chest.” Publicly, Holmes’ father was a successful journalist and mystery novelist, while at home Paul A. Holmes was a distant, uncomfortable, older parent.
This narrative sequence on the father begins with “Florida 1985,” in which, soon after the man’s death, the poet finds two small leather books, Laird & Lee’s Diary and Time Savers. In these books, her father as a young man had recorded his exploits prior to securing his first job as a journalist. Much of Holmes’ portrait of her father relies on these diary entries, including a long and puzzling list of names entitled, “Wild Women I have Known (Part One).” To these she adds newspaper clippings, slides, and childhood memories. The sequence ends with a poem exploring the significance of the gifts, material and metaphorical, that the poet has received from her parents, gifts that include the gray tools of her father’s craft and the colorful accessories of her mother’s artistic talents.
Often, as in “The Time Savers,” The Green Tuxedo expects the reader to be a voyeur, gawking at the sordid details of one family’s — and one man’s — life. And yet Holmes’ elegy for her father makes a moving story and a truly memorable portrait. This book produces both good voyeurism and excellent poetry.
The next Ernest Sandeen Poetry Prize will be awarded for the year 2001 (the Sandeen Prize alternates awards with the Richard Sullivan Prize for Short Fiction). One should expect more fine poetry by promising, diverse poets.