Michael Anania. In Natural Light. Asphodel Press, 1999.
William Carlos Williams wrote “By listening to the language of his locality the poet begins to learn his craft.” If listening is the key to making poetry, then Michael Anania has mastered his craft. He has been listening and responding to the language of locality for some three decades. Since the publication of his New Poetry Anthology (1969) and The Color of Dust in 1970, Anania has published over a dozen books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. This output serves as evidence of an ongoing conversation between him and his surroundings that is anything but one-sided. For Anania may be a good listener, but he is a wonderful speaker as well. In fact, his latest book of poems, In Natural Light (which, incidentally, has the boxy appearance of a City Lights paperback), comes with a Compact Disc containing audio recordings of all twenty-eight poems found in the collection. The CD was recorded at the studios of WFMT-FM in Chicago and thus has preserved the poet’s reading voice with all the resonance and clarity of a BBC Third Program production. This effect is enhanced by musical segues between each of the sections that feature strains of Guy Lombardo’s “Let the Rest of the World Go By” and pieces from J.S. Bach’s Clavierübung. In combining this soundscape with the printed word, Anania has created a richly-textured approximation of his conception of space. He asks the reader to look and to listen, to be participant in a conversation that begins and ends in celebration of space and language, but which is often steered through, rather than around, the locus of pain. Anania is adept at transforming pain into beauty, and in asking the reader to participate in this metamorphosis, he insists that we listen attentively. Thus, he hopes to break through what Williams called the “constant barrier” between reader and world.
The book is divided into four sections and includes two pages of exegetic notes. Section One of In Natural Light begins with a poem entitled ““A Place That’s Known”” that establishes the overall tone of Anania’s preoccupation with locality. It defines the notion of “place” in terms of the physical and the perceived. As the speaker holds in the place of thought the image of his mother sitting on “the front step” and “smoking the last Chesterfield of the night,” he inhabits “the Plaza” (i.e., ‘place’) and is aware of the “western sky,” and the rest of the world “beginning just where [his mother’s] anklets crossed.” The physical world, the world of the body, and the place of thought have converged on a single path that leads into the space of literature. One is reminded of Alexander Hogue’s anthropomorphic vision of the dust bowl in his painting Mother Earth Laid Bare in which a dissipated Western farmscape assumes the startling shape of a supine, sullied woman. In the painting, the viewer is forced to look back from a ruined arroyo on a green garden surrounding a pleasant farmhouse. Hogue’s message is clear: between waste and fecundity lies the body of the ‘mother.’ He asks us to use the memory of ‘mother’ as a bridge to leave the desert far behind. The situation in Anania’s poem is similar though reversed. The reader must stand
somewhere in the West, in a space of green
edged with gold and sky blue, something the Plaza
might have given way to if we listened hard…
Speaker and reader must begin the journey from a familiar green lawn and step into the unknown by crossing the body of the mother, who is every child’s first source of language. How the shape of the unknown will be perceived, i.e., as “gold and sky blue” or as waste land will be determined by how we choose to listen. ““A Place That’s Known”” reads like a contemporary urban legend of the Fall as it announces the end of an Edenic childhood and the onset of the knowledge of death’s imminence in the “sky outside [the mother’s] hospital window,” in “poverty’s continual rage,” in the images of “drowned children, scaldings” and “so many stomachs clutched in pain.” The reality of the world outside the Eden of “the Plaza” is pure misery, but the shape of it can ultimately be determined by the language its inhabitants produce through perceptiveness.
Other poems in Section One make careful use of the power of language to give shape to the resistant material of reality. In “December Commonplace,” Anania uses poetry to perform a trick of resurrection in a scene from the dead of winter. As “we are tilting past / solstice,” the shadows of the dead foxglove stems “branch through crystals / and course and grow.” Thus, natural light, even in December, continues to be a source of fertility. In “October Evening,” living flowers, “glacier cups,” are transformed and immortalized into “a thousand years of snow” by a simple “slant of clear light.” In “Apples,” Anania comments on the often limited capabilities of language to bring order to space, especially when language must transcend cultural barriers. In this poem, the proprietor of a roadside apple stand attempts to capture the entire Autumn scene of apples for sale beside “home-strained honey, prize-winning gourds” and two turkeys strutting about his yard by uttering one word to three uncomprehending Vietnamese customers: “America.” Anania muses, “as though this were their chance / to see it all at once...” In “Somewhat Gray and Graceful,” the author allows space to be shaped not by language but by the flutter of doves’ wings “like breath anticipating speech.” Similarly, in the numinous “From the Petrarchan Folio (42r),” he tells of the mysterious “Laureo” immortalized in a 14th-century manuscript because a clerk scribbled her name in the margin producing a “stain of all that / might be said in her name, name initiating this rustling, tree just past his window asway with her.” “As Semblance, Though,” reminds the reader that he is stumbling beyond the confines of the familiar where language may often fail to signify. The poet explores our relationship to the emptiness that precedes the knowable before it is given shape and significance by language:
You are the shape it takes of nothing,
a border urged outward, speaking its own
incessant edge, as water breaks and curls,
river scrawl meandering, naming the catch
in your throat, all that lies beyond whatever
In Section Two, language is “the stain” that gives significance to reality. This image of “the stain” appears as a leitmotif. A woman dabs repeatedly at a spot of maple syrup on her blouse in “Out and About” with a “kleenex wrapped around her finger.” With each dab, she tastes the syrup’s “cloying sweetness” which grows less strong as the stain grows less dark. Even so, the speaker observes that neither stain nor sweetness will ever “vanish entirely.” In “As Though,” the “stain” appears as an obstruction to the persistence of memory:
as though the pine sap
smudged into your fingertips
mattered, you scrub at it
Superficial distractions that divert our attention from that which bears significance are unimportant. What matters is the deeper stain of memory best expressed by the language of poetry. Anania likens memory to “a radio switched off, / still playing__what is / remembered as forgetfulness.” It is the capacity to remember that is the maker’s most necessary tool. Through remembrance, what is significant to either individual or culture may “grow less dark” over time, but will never vanish completely. The poet’s duty is to rescue the significant from the desert of forgetfulness and re-present it to his udience. In such a way, memory becomes a balm for the disenchanted; it brings order to the chaos of loss.
Music, for Anania, is a prime conduit for the restorative power of memory. For instance, in “And This Is Free” it is the Blues that brings redemption, causing a man to extend “three fingers / toward the music, feeling its edge spill / toward him as though it were a subtle / property of the air...sorrow’s now joy trembling in his grasp.” “Some Other Spring” offers an image of the day “itself like music, / playing, an instance / of balance...,” and in “Missing Matter” a “blues chord [that has] caught in your finger” is identified as “that part of need / so certain it ripples like water across blank spaces.” Music brings balance and order to the “blank spaces” by stimulating memory. This is true even though, or perhaps because, music need not rely on language to be comprehended. To comprehend music, one need only “listen hard.” Thus, it is the imagination that ultimately shapes space. In “Incidental Music,” Anania writes:
the faith we have
in song exceeds its
melodies, notes struck
in speech we only
Anania might also have said that the faith we have in poetry exceeds the language used to make it. For like music, poetry, though made of language, often strives to be free of it. For the most part, however, neither poetry nor music can be sufficiently explained, comprehended or critiqued without the use of language. This is the paradox at the heart of Mallarmé’s belief that the task of the poet is “to find a way of transposing the symphony to the book: in short to regain our rightful due.” It is language that harnesses the elusive quality of both music and poetry, but as the critic Gerald Bruns points out, the poet’s task would be “to transpose objects into words, and to gather those words not into structures of meaning...but...into a musical structure whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere.” It is language that remains when music dissolves meaning. This phenomenon is explored in “Songs Intended for Familiar Places.” Each of the poem’s five “songs” consists of three stanzas in tercets (the last a “duet”) that present images of the tangible made transparent by music until, among the final lines, the “mad-sweet pangs” of a cornet cause an entire town to dissolve “like dreams.” At this instant we find that in the space left behind what matters most is language, i.e., “names and their implicit voices.”
It is “names” that take precedence in Section Three’s “Study with Several Figures, Incompletely Recalled” in which Anania serves up a litany of the names of various figures appearing in a “curious vase painting” faded perhaps by time but remaining nonetheless present, discernible only by “inscriptions” and “inscribed names.” These are figures who have become defined only by their being “couched in language” and by Anania’s implicit re-presentation of that part of their respective identities that can only be spoken, written or read. Language, he implies, is exacting and can be a destructive force acting upon the very space it seeks to order. This is the paradox of artistic expression – it is Orphic. For no sooner has the elusive been captured, be it by sculptor, painter, musician, or poet, it begins to exist in what is essentially an embalmed state, a state in which, as Blanchot puts it, “dying itself is a task without end.” This may explain why Section Three is dominated by references to the visual arts – to remind the reader that there is an inherent destructiveness in giving order to space that has the power of making mortuaries of museums. In “Edvard Munch,” for example, Anania plays up the Orphic paradox of art as death’s domain in lines such as
A summer night, girls by the sea,
how she bleeds her hair across his face,
and reddening, as well, her gown
opening like a curtain to his gaze.
What have you made of these waters,
a pale column between the sun
and its reflection?
But the poet is not willing to give up his original vision: that death’s domain, be it imagined as desert or sea, can be shaped into familiar territory and thus made benign by those who traverse it. In “Oranges and Lemons,” someone at an easel “brush[es] away at / the tangibility / of a morning’s work” to find that “this labor against / an obvious surface / is where the art began.” Anania observes that “It hardly matters” if we choose to see this as “a mere / occasion of light through / sun-streaked tall windows.” If art is viewed as the “mere occasion” of creation and not the beginning of life in death, then space is given a shape one can live with and more importantly in.
In the book’s final section, composed entirely of a single long poem entitled “Fifty-two Definite Articles,” Anania’s faith in the power of choice as the driving force behind shaping the chaos of the world beyond “the Plaza” is brought home brilliantly in a single stanza. It places the onus of choosing squarely on the reader, reminding one that the poet has enjoined us early on to “listen hard,” to participate in the conversation that orders intellectual space and shapes the world. By choosing wisely, one is afforded the opportunity of pushing beyond the “constant barrier” observed by Williams. Anania writes
— Joe Francis Doerr
if time is measured by what is lost
and loss is understood in time,
sorrow is another name for order
that seems a bit oversure of itself;
look at it this way, time passes,
the constellations come and go;
early and late, they are signs
of both change and recurrence;
alone can be either temporary or
permanent; it all depends on you