The Nothing That Is

Reviewed by Andre Furlani

In Forge Jan Zwicky restricts her vocabulary, prosody, and themes while Steven Price, recipient of the Gerald Lampert Award for Anatomy of Keys, in his second book of poetry is verbally expansive, metrically venturesome, and thematically various. Forge is centripetal, gingerly ascending the brittle rungs of a spiritual and sexual transport (the terms become reciprocal); Omens in the Year of the Ox is centrifugal, avid for new subjects, including infanticide, Gaudí, joyriding, relics, Icarus, seabirds, Dr. Johnson’s table talk, and the curses of a midwife, a blind man, and a gardener.

Zwicky’s object is a mystical apprehension that by definition defies language, and so her diction is ascetic even where the sexual analogies for spiritual rapture are wanton. Price by contrast thirsts for verbal rapture, and permitting language to exceed its objects and become the primary pigment. He wants to strike all the registers, while she strives for that single, sustained note that might disclose, as a precipitate, an ineffable insight.

In her faux-commonplace book Lyric Philosophy Zwicky defines “lyric philosophy” as “informed by both profound intuitions of coherence and the desire for clarity”; an attunement of intellect and feeling where the rhythmic coherence of the thought is attuned to the pythagorean integrity of the world. The book’s themes of a “resonant” non-propositional order of truth recur here: thus the “wisdom” of Bach’s “resonant” music consists in “its tempering lyric passion by domesticity, its grounding of the flash of lyric insight into domestic earth.”

The forge of Zwicky’s title is not a discursive entity but a tentative metaphor for love: “and if the forge was love.” In poems that echo San Juan de la Cruz and Teresa di Avila the love is eros and charis. The forge is also a matrix, literally a womb, and children move wraith-like through these verses like the children of Rudyard Kipling’s “They.” Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” instigates two poems haunted not by scenes of children but by their absence. The poet has intimations of children so strong they seem to touch her and even to masquerade as memories, “because we cannot bear to say/ the longed-for that did not come to pass.”

The dwellings these poems occupy are thus childless, the rooms filled instead by a beloved who is both an erotic partner and a spiritual avatar—a true vicar. As in Freud, “the resonant ground of sex and death” determines human experience, and in Forge Eros is Thanatos. The Bach partita inspires reflections on the need to improvise in a world where beauty is “rimed / with death.” In “Transit” the angel is as schrecklich as those Rilke glimpsed dimly from the high Adriatic ramparts of Duino (she has a poem, “Admetos,” that follows Rilke’s “Alkestis”): “and the god, slick, dripping, / stepped out from the darkness. Entered you.” The language of penetration is sacred and profane (the penetralia is a temple’s innermost shrine or cella). From the second person singular she graduates to the first: “And this that breaks inside me: you.” Their union is equally apophatic and priapic.

Emptiness in Omens in the Year of the Ox is threatening, Price fearing that his verse is vacant. According to the castigating choir of superegos who reappear in the collection, the “voices” of his verse “just vowels jarred to clattering”; they chide: “You are not haunted. Nothing is in you.” Meanwhile, beside her lover, Zwicky lives out a paradox of negative theology, that dissolution reasserts the body, language, and world.

As in Lyric Philosophy, so in the philosophical lyric of Forge, Zwicky is committed to what Wittgenstein calls perspicacious presentation (her preferred synonym is “clarity”) combined with his axiom that value eludes nomination. The basis of human meanings is unutterable, shown forth only in the spaces between utterance. In these poems of mystical congress along a via negativa, love penetrates the “cloud of unknowing” and divines a beatific object that cannot be an object of knowledge yet consents to be adored and reciprocally graces the adorer.

Zwicky’s sources are exalted yet lightly borne, from Counter-Reformation visionaries, Christian neo-Platonism, and Julian of Norwich to Julian’s admirer T.S. Eliot. Price’s are necessarily more diverse and audible, in part because his verse is still in the process of metabolizing the canon. “Memory rakes its rocky/ earth, sets everything/ to echoing,” he says, and could just as well be talking about the Daughter of Memory who is the muse of poetry.

The precursor poets mutter the book’s surest omens. His “Bull Kelp” supplements Marianne Moore’s menagerie, and “Odysseus and the Sirens” mingles Moore’s “Fish” with Homer’s mermaids. Although a prose poem, “The Tyrant’s Physician” bears the influence of Cavafy. Donne’s Holy Sonnets reverberate, as in the injunction “Break us/ to make us bright.” “Vagrancy Blues” draws on the acerbic melancholy of Langston Hughes’ blues poems. His “Magi,” reduced to being “rags on sticks under westering skies,” owe as much to Yeats as to Eliot. “Jarred Pears under Dust” revisits a Theodore Roethke’s cellar armed with Wallace Stevens’ “Study of Two Pears” and “Anecdote of the Jar.” Stevens’ alogical negations impel several poems: “I was an eye and was not”; “what you hear/ is the nothing that nothing announces.” The swifts darting by the poet’s Spanish window are as insistent as Stevens’ blackbirds: “this-this-this their quick turnings urged”—or is this the threshing of Philip Larkin’s tree?

The opening poem “The Crossing” audaciously begins with the notorious word Seamus Heaney chose to render the Hwaet that launches Beowulf, before summoning the opening of Dante’s Inferno (passages from which Heaney translated): “So. At the end of the middle of your life / you wake.” The tutelary spirit of “The Crossing” is one of the earliest students of Anglo-Saxon metrics, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and throughout the book Price pays homage to the guttural muse of sprung rhythm. “The world in its shook foil shone,” he declares under an arbutus that possesses “rootmuscles.”

Price makes fine tongue-twisters, too: “see its slow molten dreep dap low”; “A weird eel unwinding windward in the lee,” the last noun reversing the first one. His Hopkinsian word-hoard, replenished with dialect terms, is exact but ostentatious: “plicks,” “smoke-glarred,” “stogged,” “noonspackled,” “scup,” “wind-amped,” and “screeled” appear within four pages.

Zwicky’s high-cultured solemnity can sound precious, while Price’s virtuosic exuberance can sound wearyingly precocious, yet their very different kinds of audacity sustain their books. Both are committed to “lyric” intimations of an aesthetic and ethical order immanent in nature and the world. “Lyric knows the world is whole,” she writes in the essay “Lyric, Memory, Narrative,” “that every part of it is integrally related to every other part.” “It outstrips itself as it grows,” Price writes of the arbutus, and this will likely prove true of his own development. It is already true of Zwicky’s.

This review “The Nothing That Is” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 184-86.

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