Book Review

Christina Pugh’s poems in Grains of the Voice are stunning in their complexity and force. After my first read, I knew I had yet to tease out all of the allusions she had woven throughout the collection—some popular, some classical, but all integrated seamlessly, giving the collection a unified yet multifaceted voice. After immersing myself in the trance of this book, not wanting to break that intoxication to consult Google or Merriam-Webster, I knew that I needed to write. It wasn’t that I wanted to merely imitate a certain clever turn of phrase (though there are many of them), but rather that Pugh’s poems gave me the gut-deep urge of poiesis after reading lines such as “I’m asking you to mouth my / language like a song” and  “rising like / a cloud from the mortar of the self.” If one’s first response to a poem is a poem, then that, to me, is a mark of an excellent poet.

Though there are many influences to trace throughout this collection, I think the most rewarding is her response to and reworking of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The title of Pugh’s book even parallels Whitman’s as they both examine the minutiae as part of the whole. The poems in Grains of the Voice are not only sonically composed to perfection, but are arranged within the collection by Pugh’s impeccable ear, so that each poem echoes the previous one in tone or phrase. For example, the closing line of “Unsung”—“Thus unsung elegance discovers its own buyer”—is folded into the concerns of the subsequent poem, “Inflection,” which asks: “How can we call those words / human, when they’ve flown so far from our commerce, our marketplace?” Concerns with profit, value, and commerce might at first seem out of place in a collection called Grains of the Voice. But with the same skill that Pugh integrates lines from Shakespeare and Donne as well as Styx and the Rolling Stones, Pugh shows how the seemingly unrelated components of song question the underlying assumptions of what our society values. Parallel to how Whitman touts our interconnectedness through our shared atoms, Pugh reveals how even the auctioneer’s voice, calling out for the highest bidder, has “the voice of a tenor / calling among straw… music enthralls the marketplace.” Even the rhythm of our monetary exchanges is a song dependent upon the voice, a constant unifying beat among us.

Perhaps one of the most interesting poems to examine in light of Whitman and commerce is “iPod.” I’ll admit, at first I shied away from the title. I would like to pretend that poetry needn’t be concerned with the stuff of popular culture, though I am time and again proven wrong. But Pugh unabashedly addresses technology and the seam it necessarily shares with the lyric. In the poem that precedes “iPod,” which is simply called “Poem,” she concludes:

And always I’ll choose this over all the ones
and zeroes—I choose it over storyboard,
vocoder.  You say the self’s sequestered
by the mordent of a singing voice: I say
then, let it be. Trill it, then, and bury me:

The “this” above refers to the complex melodies that the speaker has been told are “extinct.” The speaker refuses, however, to accept the offer of zeros or ones, either/or. If the self is held within the alternation of the voice, she would rather be stuck in that ambiguous, fluctuating middle (the “trill”) than be relegated into the certain realms of zeros or ones. Rather than avoid confronting what seems unfit for the lyric, Pugh reckons with the bleak binary code of our exchanges, because it is in the charged space between the either/or that the lyric can and must and will reverberate.

“iPod” follows on the subsequent page after the indefinite ending of “Poem”: “And I see again myself every time I see them / in the street, moving to the rush of their / own drummers.” This poem questions the contemporary understanding of Whitman’s mantra to “sing myself.” If we can still sing ourselves, is that self ultimately sequestered in its own song, isolated from the interchange, the commerce with others? The speaker views herself as a part of this condition but also apart from it—an accurate representation of the poet’s own necessary involvement with contemporary society clashing with the need to remain outside of it. The poem ends with the most direct allusion to Whitman: “all that’s hallowed unavowed or silent- / vowed in singing to myself: that is what I / had to hear in everything he sang.” The speaker begins this poem by seeing herself in the actions of others and ends by hearing herself in someone else’s song, the song that holds within it the song of herself.

The second section of this book is called “Interlude: Recto and Verso,” and departs from the format of the first section. In “Interlude,” each two-page spread has poems on the left titled “Verso,” while poems on the right serve as the recto but instead have unique titles. One of the two epigraphs for this section aptly describes how these two sides communicate with one another: “Thought is on one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side.” The verso poems seem to be constructed primarily by sound; from this arrangement evolves fragmented images that mutate with the continued repetition of sound, much like an echo does. One verso echoes the preceding recto poem, “Infection,” which describes a time when “trucks watered daisies / and forget-me-not with spouts of DDT” and “a body who had to / live in it—the lung, I mean—and lived.” The “Verso” on the next page echoes and amplifies this poem in interesting ways:

iron lung        iron
lung               iron
mask a melancholy
hid inside forgive me
hide inside

Another recto poem,“Ornature,” is distilled by the “Verso” on the following page. “Ornature” speaks of a woman waking from a coma, her skull shaved and reshaped: “Someone has to be that / two percent, she says / with a smile. Why not me? / —And, sackcloth or silk, the husk did open.” The “Verso” reads:

sackcloth ornate
within the coma
sorrow when she
lifts her hair to
show the shape

It is not as if these verso poems pull out what is most important from the previous recto poem, since that seems to negate the purpose of the recto poems altogether, but rather, like an echo, the verso poems rely on a sonic logic to isolate the sounds and words that reconfigure to form a new poem that understands sound to be a valid intelligence not opposed to or separate from meaning. This verso/recto dialogue also reveals how fragile the human voice is as we hear how words, sound, and meaning fade away with each subsequent echo. Yet the echo that endures also reveals the paradoxical beauty of this fragility. This collection is, in essence, an act of singing. Each poem lilts, echoes, trills what has come before so that by the end one feels that the book has sung itself and that you, the reader, are part of its song.

About the Reviewer

Kristin George Bagdanov is in the M.F.A. poetry program at Colorado State University, where she is also a Lilly Graduate Fellow. Recent and forthcoming poems can be found in The Los Angeles Review, 32 Poems, and Cutbank. To see more of her work visit