The world’s leading imperialist power is currently headed by a demagogue whose every utterance appears to dispense with truth. Twitter, his preferred platform, has helped ensure that the written word is woven more loosely into the fabric of our everyday lives than ever before. Introducing poets against this backdrop of imperial duplicity and digital threads may seem like leaning a feather against the base of a derrick. It’s always been a strange time to be a poet, and now—as before—language needs their support.
The release of these three retrospective collections under review is therefore timely, for one thing that feels new about the contemporary moment is that language is too busy being information. Moving through several decades with these three remarkable poets is an invitation to resist this ongoing “informationalization” of language.
In the prose poem that concludes Space Between Her Lips, Margaret Christakos asks us to “[i]magine” a garment “made of language, which used to go on outside the head but now swirls from gaze to gaze with a new efficiency.” “I’m passing you on this message and don’t think it’s casual,” Christakos continues, with faint echoes of Frank O’Hara’s playful urgency in “Meditations in an Emergency.” “This is pure steam. This is something else. I think you should read it.”
I think you should read Christakos for many of the reasons that Gregory Betts outlines in his superb introductory essay to the collection. Her “adroit combination of experimental and lyrical tendencies.” Her feminist avant-garde expression of a “post-patriarchal literary perspective.” And more. The poems shift so suddenly that these conceptual moorings sometimes slip. “I am condoning a space between my lips to suggest openness,” Christakos declares. “Visual Splendour Coupons” is a wonderful title that could double as a description of the collection. The poem’s humorous meditations on motherhood—“The scene / was musical and filled with milk”—are amplified when followed by the deadly serious “M1. UK Breast Milk Toxic: 13 July 99.” On the whole, these poems summon and evade the toxicities of our digital world, marked as they are by the poet’s pastiche of the flotsam and jetsam of posts and texts—the data of our lives. Much is sent, yet “so little’s worth saying.”
Nelson Ball knows exactly what is worth saying, and it is indeed “little,” judging by the scale of his poems. Throughout Certain Details, Ball delivers on his certainty that a close attention to detail delivers meaning. The poems are sharp and slight, pocket knives but also paintings. He outlines his aims in a characteristically succinct fashion in “Note”:
This ambition to “stall / or still // life” becomes particularly poignant in the tender fragments that include or address the visual artist Barbara Caruso, Ball’s life partner. When they talk, “words / cling / to / words.” When she’s gone, “you / continue / speaking / to me / but not / nearly enough.” And whereas Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” moves without verbs, Ball’s imagist poems can be measured by their verbal precision, like the lightning that “ties / sky / to / earth.” Stuart Ross’ intimate introductory essay rightly champions Ball as a terrific guide for “[b]eginning poets [who] especially tend to overwrite.” At the risk of overwriting, I would characterize Ball’s poems as Dickinson with ontology instead of metaphysics as an accent.
If Ball’s poems are portraits, John Reibetanz’s are often profiles of the self and/as others. The Essential John Reibetanz reveals a poet for whom it is essential to be other people. Poets tend to be ventriloquists, and Reibetanz revels in this role. From the Frostian dramatic monologue “Lewis Bolt, Farmer” that opens the collection to a poem about Curious George on the run from the Nazis, we travel widely with Reibetanz’s characters. What orients us is both a Romantic faith in the lyric’s potential to expand our consciousness through the fleeting occupation of another’s perspective and a deep understanding of the strange spaces memory makes for us to have been other people. As he reflects on a long-lost childhood friend in “What Just Was”:
earthshaking came of it—soon we went on
to different schools, lost touch—nothing
the going on itself, a flowing through earth’s
nothing on something human that just was.
My classification of these three collections as “retrospective” implies closure. Of course, what is “earthshaking” about all three is the hope, vis-à-vis language, that there is more work to be done.