Book Review

If a work of art can be considered a solar system, it’s then governed by a balance between centripetal and centrifugal forces. Visual artists such as Pollock, O’Keeffe, and Kandinsky, whose works defy representational criteria and traditional modes of interpretation, worked all the more diligently (and subtly) with unifying elements. The most successful abstract art is founded on skillful use of compositional mapping and balance, modulations between symmetry and asymmetry, and adept distribution of color, even if these dynamics often manifest spontaneously (“flow” is no less a demonstration of craft than is deliberate labor). With music, we talk of “hooks,” elements that satisfy a listener’s (mostly unconscious) expectations. In literature, much of the work that challenges conventional iterations of meaning and unity, driven by centrifugal impulses (disparate references, metaphorical leaps, non sequiturs), depends considerably on such centripetal elements as tone, imagery, and musicality to ground and engage a reader.

In Four Weathercocks, Cassandra Cleghorn works in her own dexterous way with aesthetic and tonal polarities, employing language both as a utility to convey meaning and as a purely aesthetic expression—that is, language for rapture’s sake, poetry as a form of glossolalia, meaning in the associative sense rendered ancillary or at times irrelevant. In this way, Cleghorn answers the highest call of poetry, transcending utilitarian agendas and rupturing the signifier/signified dynamic, all the while still engaging the reader on multiple levels (cerebral, emotional, etc.). From early in her collection, Cleghorn demonstrates her ability to balance the centripetal and centrifugal. Consider the centripetal opening stanza of “Macondo”:

And the shapes nosed onto the sand,
were drawn back in and under, nudged up again
as if by their own flailing,
flayed and stifled.

The reader is impacted by the image of “shapes,” albeit amorphous shapes, creatures rendered indiscernible by their “flailing,” “stifled” by the oil. These opening lines orient the reader, thematically and viscerally. Cleghorn then delivers the centrifugal second stanza:

I kept my brain under my tongue,
salt gathered in a sinus
paying out for days in tiny echoes,
throat roughed, ready as flypaper

While the second line serves as a possible tether (the relative accessibility of “salt” and “sinus”), the first, third, and fourth lines are deeply musical and viscerally transportive, yet thematically ambiguous or even subversive. The reader (in real time, and perhaps reflexively) integrates the trans-associative experience catalyzed by this stanza (what Jung or Joseph Campbell might refer to as a nudge into the collective unconscious or mythic) with the thematic clarity suggested in the first stanza. The third stanza again offers grounding, such words and phrases as “wings,” “brown feathers now black,” “the crude,” and “black sheen.” The poem ends with a singular image: “…men like lost farmers scattered straw, / raked away the straw they had scattered, / scattered more.”

Cleghorn’s navigation of polarities becomes more precise, pronounced, and complex in subsequent poems. In “Milagro” (“Miracle”), she opens with the oracular, “The sun off the snowfields is too much today. / I live in a cathedral whose interior reaches / cannot be taken in, not now.”

For Cleghorn, experience is a riddle, the essence of which is enigmatic. Cleghorn, however, possesses the craft to effectively explore this enigma without actually concretizing it. She is much like Dante’s Virgil, ushering both herself and her reader into unchartered realms. In “Milagro,” the cathedral represents that vastness of experience—literal and potential, conscious and unconscious, personal and collective—that essential quality (spiritus) that “cannot be taken in,” conclusively analyzed, or deciphered. And yet, Cleghorn is able to evoke sublime responses without necessarily furthering or expanding upon any particular theme.

She continues, “A cathedral is a world, clusters of people // doing things together, some singly, / tower of crutches stone-torqued into sheaves of wheat.” The line, taken as a whole, is a visual and musical trajectory into the archetypal, a catapult into the pre- and post-linguistic. Again, the reader is invited into the cathedral that “cannot be taken in”—invited to read intuitively rather than empirically—motivated by something akin to faith, or at least curiosity, rather than certitude. Reading a poet such as Cleghorn underscores how Keats’s notion of negative capability is as applicable to reading as it is to writing. This is Cleghorn’s salient success with Four Weathercocks: her ability to assert the poem as a portal and, concurrently, a thing in-itself, an exclusively and paradoxically self-referential metaphor. Cleghorn has absorbed the poststructuralists as much as Thoreau, Emerson, or any of the British Romantics. In addition, Cleghorn is schooled in such classic notions as unity—Aristotle’s working maxim that no word should be inessential. She is, however, also willing to move beyond accessible ratiocinations and prescribed precautions, risking the deconstruction and implosion/explosion of the poem, as in, the veering of text into undefined and indefinable space: the poem rendering itself obsolete; i.e., unreadable.

Other poems that skillfully reconcile contradictory elements and establish fine balances: “Anchises, Aeneas, and Ascanius,” the subject of which is the speaker’s father’s decline into dementia. Many lines in this poem explore the loss of identity (from both the speaker’s and the father’s perspective). The broken line and hyphen at the end of the piece serve as a textual illustration and evocation of truncation, loss, and unraveling.

“Ransack” is a compelling poem, especially the (possible) shifts in perspective. At times, it’s as if a narrator is speaking, at other times as if the beavers are speaking; in the end, as if the narrator and beavers may somehow be one and the same thing: nature and humanity have hybridized. The voice of the poem is locatable but not entirely recognizable. There’s something both reassuring and apocalyptic about the final lines: “throwing ourselves upon the beds / we’ve made from what edges / the still evaporating pond.”

In the title piece, Cleghorn works adeptly as a portraitist and still-life artist; however, while “Four Weathercocks” demonstrates her ability to systematically develop themes and motifs, crafting noticeable unities, it also works with a subtextual or underlying counter-effect, a dreamlike quality that infuses the lines and impacts the reader in a vividly centrifugal way. The third section ends with a haunting depiction of “the feather man,” leaving a reader with the sense of partaking in an ancient ritual or embarking on a shamanic journey:

He pauses, reaches for the bone,
lifts the hip to his face,
looks at me through empty sockets.
His touch turns mask
to magnet.

What is most impressive about this collection is Cleghorn’s ability to voice, yet never dilute the presence of mystery. For poets to convey what they know is a worthy challenge in and of itself, but for the work to be a “weathercock” pointing toward what they can on some level experience but never clearly categorize or concretely translate—and for that reason not directly convey but rather imply and invoke—presents yet another and far more formidable challenge, one that few poets are inclined or sufficiently equipped to embrace. Four Weathercocks is a triumph for both its lofty intention and Cassandra Cleghorn’s exemplary execution.

About the Reviewer

John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer, More of Me Disappears, At the Threshold of Alchemy, The New Arcana (with Daniel Y. Harris), and, most recently, strange theater (New York Quarterly Books). His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have been published widely, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.