It seems it’s been taking me longer and longer to complete these reviews lately, and not for lack of interest or quality of the work but rather a reluctance to leave the work behind. I relish such time and space where the day is not accounted by such mean labor counts of the work clock or endless items on the to-do list. Time that previously might have been spent writing letters, or chatting (without an agenda) with a neighbor or relative at one’s leisure. Space for real presence. I just had a chat with a young boy whose father is caring for an ailing mother’s property in her absence—and while I was certainly distracted by the desire to get my (sleeping) toddler out of her carrier and into full-blown, productivity-prime naptime before his increasingly personal questions stirred her—after his father came over and explained he had mild autism and “rescued” me with more weeding for the boy to do, I realized what a gift it was to still have such pockets of genuine being, if we allow ourselves the time. And that is just what reading works like Richard Meier’s A Duration prepares a person to be mindful of.
Like the poetry of Rosmarie Waldrop or Iliassa Sequin, both of whose work I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with lately, A Duration operates by a different kind of logic, a different mode of thinking—like trying to write on a plane experiencing turbulence. The where and what of the poem is of secondary concern. What matters, what is real, is “the sensation of the text // billowing and floating inside her … a feeling of being submerged, of having been written before by those older words, granted a new idea.” A Duration is more concerned with getting one’s gears turning than with dictating to what end they turn, though there is certainly no lack of underlined gems in my now-tattered copy. (I really do love the experience of holding Wave books with their covers that simply beg to be dirtied by our touch.) As one such gem reminds the reader: “sometimes it is the beginning that begins the experiment.” Does the act of writing (and thus reading) pull us into the present or out of it—or possibly a third space, through? And what is it to be pulled through the present?
I often wonder why as a species we are so burdened with the need for articulation (though as a poet, am hardly pushing for us to abandon such burden any time soon). This work at once seems to reflect that burden and deny it, not unlike a pillow book. It is as though on some level the world is not the world until we have acknowledged it as such, by whatever means we do. Is it this growing sense of a lack of realness that is giving poetry its moment (its “moment” of course in the eye of the beholder, likely American, likely also a writer of poetry)? Something of the Jeff Goldblum effect: we are at last (perhaps) pausing to question whether we ought to—ought to what, though? And grasping the thread I start again at the beginning, and yet I’ve often suspected only beginning is true. Have we not in Western culture asserted “In the beginning is the word”? In A Duration is the word making flesh, “the asphalt broken or / bending down softly [page break] a vibration inside the thigh muscle,” and around such images, in a collection otherwise entirely prose, glorious singing white space on the page for a body to be.
I’ve been reading about the deep-image poets/poetics lately, having read several of the poets earlier in my studies without associating them with the poetic movement as such. I begin my classes inviting my students to lay out the qualities of what is, for them, a successful poem. An invitation to a new perspective frequently comes up. Is this a work of poems or poetry, and how does such framing shape our engagement with the word? I’m not sure attention to a squirrel reshapes my perspective, but it has shifted the mode of my perceiving so that a review almost seems a disservice. I am looking—and inviting my readers—to look at the thing before it has happened, which as Meier states early on in the work is against the rules. “One of the rules is not to look at things // before they happen and not to see them or write them down before they happen not to call them into existence by seeing or looking or thinking or writing things before they happen…” Throughout A Duration is the deep image fully realized as the word conjures company—i.e., another person, or at least presence. What transcends the physical more than the relation of the I-Thou?
As poetry, A Duration is the reaching of the poem as manifestation of a will to live—and for that living to matter, perhaps: “reaching does burst in and one does live all over again.” But one begins to suspect, further into the collection, the work, really, that more is at stake in these particular words. A seed of an idea is planted and swiftly takes root: “how small a change was sufficient to change the story”? One begins to question the connection between parts within A Duration. Grief creeps into the work. The pacing of the second part, TiP TOE SOT is slower as more stanzas end-stop where previously the work’s enjambment hardly left one breath for questioning. Shakespeare’s King Lear enters the work like an alchemist through the stage door. “Nothing provokes // Lear, nothing transforms him, nothing allows him to be with Cordelia at the end.” (How small a change is sufficient to change the story?) But what is the transformative provocation of this work, and is one necessary?
There is a tension throughout between stasis and perpetual motion. Such motion requires agitation. There is at once an attempt to contain and be finite and yet ever be counting onward. “A mallard head in the sun was // blue then green when I changed the line. I thought, I’ll wait for a the donkey, an apple stick, to say his name. The paper grain. A sardine is a poem a bean a // pebble a real thing a last time a kinglet the inlet // of the river now is moving south in a long narrow channel of sand…” And in that simple math magic of “if a = b and b = c then a = c,” we have the alchemical intention of the work, to make of a thing the real thing, via the poem. The poem is our noticing our noting. I suppose if pressed, I don’t have an answer why we should be so concerned, other than to refer to where Meier says one can’t look at the thing ahead of the thing. (And yet, in my own poems, what else am I doing but attempting to summon some manner of future presence I feel ever more in danger of not realizing?) “A serious observation of one thing after another is a loving action,” Meier writes. Does it matter what the thing is? (The argument this book might be making is that it does not.)
“I am attempting to continue a story I have yet to begin. I don’t think, ‘an owl counts its vocalizations’ but ‘a duration coming into being and passing away and coming into being again.’ When do you feel most alive?” At the Saint Louis Art Museum’s exhibition on Modern Native Art, Action/Abstraction Redefined, several of the artists commented on the focus on the quality of paint, of the medium and material itself, rather than the idea. Not even how the work is experienced, but how the making of the work is experienced . . . this is living in a way that at once begs to be the subject of art and yet eludes any attempt at summation or replication. “Presence is dynamic and various . . . not the guaranteed outcome of a single practice.” Presence is in the possibility of how such presence might manifest. It is impossible to predict and define. But beginning with a question might just set one on the way: “What part of your life expresses necessity?” A Duration invites the reader to begin.
About the Reviewer
Abigail Chabitnoy is the author of How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan, 2019), shortlisted in the international category of the 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry and a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. She was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow and her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak. Visit her website at salmonfisherpoet.com for more information.