Book Review

Maxine Chernoff asks an important question in her introduction to the Slope Editions Book Prize winner Anamnesis: “What response will the reader have to this malady of words and their impermanence?” The question relates to the concern the poems have on the page, where they “write” and “cross out” exhaustively. This technique allows the reader a full view of the writing process. We are able to see revision that is not truly revision, in the new-seeing vein, because the revision becomes the poem, and the process in which the poem came into being is there for the reader to see, producing that odd sensation when one is able to look at original drafts beside the published product in museum glass. The poems become a splicing of the two: draft and finished product. Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis resists paraphrase, but it does reveal process. What remains is a fascinating book that provides a new reading experience and a revision—pun intended—of the writer-reader/writer-writer relationship:

Suppose we write the sentence, "Paul had a very great mind"
Later we can return, strike through the word "mind" and write "brain"
Later we might add, before the word "had," the words, "the owner of the restaurant"
We might add, "whose sign is the shape of a sleeping deer"
We could strike this sentence out entire

The poems in this collection all work in a similar fashion. We are told to “write” and “cross this out.” We are engaged in the process of writing the poem with the poet, a stylistic decision creating a refreshing read with each poem. This removes the idea of the poet producing, after tireless drafts, a sparkling poem on the page. Ives tells us to join in that misery. We are given directions, however, that are impossible to follow, creating a paradox for the reader: we are both the writer and the reader. What we are told to “write” is already written. What we are told to “cross out” creates a new type of confusion; if we physically cross out what we are told to, we lose the original upon which the poem depends. Our situation is complicated. Here are the next few lines of the poem begun above:

We could write, "Debt has become the watch word"
We'll write, "Recommended for you"
But we can cross this out
Write, "My family has three members"
Strike through "has," write, "is"

Anamnesis also seems to examine narrative. Ives begins a thought only to stop it with what could or might be in its place, convoluting the stories that seem to hide in the poet’s consciousness. The reader finds familiar words in the above section: debt, you, we, family. From these key words, though, nothing is developed. The reader is left feeling like the poet: helpless to what the poem wishes to accomplish but seemingly cannot.

The obsessive nature of writing and rewriting, revising and striking through to find what the poem is after, points to the book’s title. “Anamnesis” is the “recalling of things past” according to the helpful OED definition in the back of the book, and Ives seems to be telling us with her poetry that our recollections are suspect. What does this say, then, of narrative poetry and its often perfectly executed turns of memory? Ives’s “cross out” and “write” say she does not trust that movement. Far from being obtuse, though, Ives’s bounce from thought to thought is like the pinball flicked into the monster’s mouth: we don’t know where it will pop back into the game.

Here are the poem’s final lines:

Strike through "members," write, "both my mother and father, in the 
apartment right now"
Strike through "right now," write "in the mornings, noon, and in the evenings"
Strike "both" through
Write, "Lucy was saying that"
Strike the whole sentence

Thirty-five pages end with deletion. We are told to strike a line or the entire poem, to “cross everything out.” What coherence the reader might gain from the poem is canceled. I’m not, however, a very obedient reader. I read through the poem again and allow my mind to construct meaning with meandering. Something clicks—not in the poem necessarily, but in the reader’s mind. Even the imperatives “write” and “cross out” trigger partial memories of my teachers as I return to the poems.

We are hardwired to connect, as a later poem in the book conjures Pound with this line: “The tree branch moving like a face in a crowd.” Of course, that same poem ends with “Cross this out,” but it’s too late, and that’s the point. By not holding to one thought, Ives triggers many; we become the writer and the reader of multiple poems. Anamnesis is a new reminder of the fluidity of our roles and our memories. The reader’s experience is not passive, and the stylistic choice to expose poems and the writing of them for what they truly are—decisions and regrets and half-truths—is refreshing.

About the Reviewer

Joe Betz is the 2009 Goldstein Prize winner judged by Paul Muldoon and a recent MFA graduate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.