POETRY: Four new collections explore beauty and meaning in the shadows, the edges and shopping at Target.
“Engraved,” by Anna George Meek. (Tupelo Press, 24 pages, $9.95.)
In 1859, Merriam-Webster published the first illustrated dictionary, hiring anonymous artisans to engrave tiny pictures. Anna George Meek uses these images as a source of inspiration in “Engraved.”
She notes that when looking at the illustrations, the “best parts of imagination emerge.” These wildly imaginative poems are astonishing in their density, vividness and precision.
She writes, “An idea books / passage, … the mind sails … the narrow channels / … only to wreck on uncharted land.” Meek’s poems chart that wandering, beginning with precise descriptions of illustrations that lead into speculations about what is off the frame or into beautiful meditations on how humans construct meaning: “Pediculina / crawls up the page to Peacock / and its showier tail: The Pediculina pauses / takes a left to Passenger / Pigeon.”
While the dictionary’s illustrations make words visible, the picture’s engraver remains invisible: “Before vanishing, the engraver / has pressed on me and inked a gothic hope.”
Meek is interested in how these images isolate an object from context; the blankness surrounding is fertile ground for the imagination. In an illustration for “gargoyle,” “a cathedral affixed to each figure, cavity / for a god who goes unrendered.” Her poems skirt the fantastic with esoteric words rich in sound and history and near vanishing themselves: cupola furnace, clavichord and toboggan.
Full of surprising moments of vivid description and sudden swerves of thinking, this chapbook will leave the reader eager for more. Hopefully, this slender volume is a prelude to a full-length book.
“Albedo,” by Kathleen Jesme. (Ahsahta Press, 112 pages, $18.)
Impressionist painter Claude Monet painted Rouen Cathedral more than 30 times in 1892 and 1893. The subject of these paintings is not the church, but the phenomenon of how light interacts with surfaces.
Similarly, Kathleen Jesme is a poet of phenomenon. She revisits images, trying multiple descriptive strategies in order to capture the ineffable in words. Many of these images deal with shadows and reflection; “Albedo” is the scientific term quantifying the reflective power of a surface. She writes of “trees skinned of light,” “things visible only in the absent / part of the sun” and “a man walking through the sunlit trees partak[ing] in the scattering.”
The book circles around an event — the death of the speaker’s father — but doesn’t narrate; rather, it describes how the loss changes the speaker’s perceptions. She sees “the shadow, but not the man.”
After his death “whatever my hands / were not holding / disappeared into the general dark.”
Jesme employs different formal techniques: thick blocks of prose, fragments scattered across the page, short stacks of lines and long, gestural lines. Yet all of her poems share a sense of murkiness. The word “something” or “thing” appears often: “that indeterminate / moment / in which something / happens” and “things wait … suspended in mist … to condense/along the body of a grass blade”
This vagueness coupled with the repetition can make the book feel overlong. But the repetition also gives the book a spiritual dimension as it references the repetition of ritual: myth, meditation, liturgy and prayer.
“El Dorado,” by Peter Campion. (University of Chicago Press, 63 pages, $18.)