Book Review

Buried almost a millennium back in the word “vocabulary” is the Latin verb “vocare,” which means “to call or summon.” Given that a vocabulary is the range of words used in a particular language or discipline, or by a particular person, to call, or call forth, the things of the world, the etymology is no surprise. Yet all of us have had the experience of a word calling nothing forth. In the flow of a book or conversation, an unknown term rises up like a bluff, and there it is: the heretofore invisible edge of our vocabulary. We can surmount it with a trip to the dictionary, only to be confronted several pages or minutes later with another word jutting from the continent of what we don’t know. So a vocabulary is a body of language that is bound, yet somehow boundless. It can expand without relinquishing its black holes. Its limits can be magnified ad infinitum, like a fractal. Who could survey such a morphing, amorphous thing? Caroline Knox, for one.

Her latest book, Hear Trains, is the most jubilant book of poetry I have ever read. The pure pleasure she takes in vocabularies, and the way that words lead the mind to unexpected places, is balm in an era dominated by the calculated noise of corporate, technological, and political language. The poems in this book remind me of Horace’s notion that poetry should “instruct and delight.” Many readers may be suspicious of art so full of pleasure, feeling that it must lack purpose, or can’t bear the gravity of our age (every age is grave in its own way). But pleasure is an end in itself, especially in language, as Knox reminds us. Its celebration is serious.

She isn’t long in demonstrating it. An homage in negative, “I Wouldn’t Mow the Field,” playfully hearkens back to Robert Frost’s “Mowing” (down to his parenthetical) while also touching on nature’s delicate symbiotic relationships.

. . . I wouldn’t mow it until
the ice could bear the machine, until it wouldn’t buckle under,
and the baleful loosestrife had gone to seed.
Two tiny native orchids, Spiranthea lacera gracilis and Habenaria lacera
(slender, and torn), grow in the shade
of all these tough and taller species. Minute
colonies of mosses surround these orchids,
you wouldn’t know they were there
if you didn’t know they were there.

Whereas Frost’s scythe whispers to make hay, Knox is writing about not mowing; she is interested in noticing. It’s the noticing of someone intimate with the land. She knows that it has its own pace, different from the human calendar. That the weeds and blooms are not isolate from one another, as humans are not isolate from the environment. An individual can mow a field while accounting for the species growing at his ankle, and be a “happy man, spring-ridden,” as she writes at the end of the poem.

But Knox is invested, most of all, in the power of names. The overlooked orchids are called out in Latin, the official language of science, of status, to grant them a position they deserve. That they are elevated among the idiomatic meadowsweet, joe-pye weed, and loosestrife (wonderful monikers one and all) is a reminder how language is tiered and multifaceted. Names are identities; the sounds of words convey pleasure and meaning, too. Joe-pye feels folksy, meadowsweet romantic, loosestrife dire. Yet all refer to plants hardly noticed by most people. High register or low register, a name allows something to assume a place in our knowledge, which needs constant cultivation to override its self-interest: “you wouldn’t know they were there/if you didn’t know they were there.”

Knox is a cultivator par excellence. I made repeated trips to dictionaries and encyclopedias while reading this book—the orchids mentioned above are also known as “lady’s tresses,” a term perhaps too delicate for her purposes in this poem—but I always felt as if I were doing it alongside her. Her poems are sprinkled with references to reading, research, and looking things up. Google is name-checked, as are more scholarly works, complete with publication dates and page numbers. This never comes off as pedantry, but as the routine of a naturally curious person who wants to know how things work and what things mean. Having words for those things is essential because it provides for a richer life.

. . . I had to google
“indexicality.” This
found me in philosophy, and
happy to see blue as richly
useful, applicable in time
and space. But definitely must
now close this blue poem as shades
of cadmium, carbon, and slate
streak their DNA across
the night sky to sleep
deep as the blue Danube
down to the ocean azure
lapis lazuli, aqua, teal.

So closes “Blue Poem.” Knox is reveling in one of her modes: cataloging the many names we use for the same thing, which, we realize, means that thing contains multitudes for which one noun cannot suffice. Her offhanded tone is an access card to those stacks. From the quotidian “I had to google,” she finds herself in philosophy and its deeper considerations of existence. She’s tracing how, thanks to the internet, we can all wear a vast amount of knowledge lightly, or at least crawl across its surface. But hidden within her nonchalance is a revealing amount of craft. It was only on repeated readings that the brilliance of the enjambed line “now close this blue poem as shades” surfaced, and I saw the physical window treatment as well as the hues. In enumerating both, Knox travels through science and classical music (The Blue Danube being a Strauss waltz), river and ocean, air and earth, to end on a word for a color that is also the name of a duck. She is a blower of the cornucopia.

Knox sustains her notes, too. The book has no sections and gallops along exploring different forms, such as the concrete shape of “Kimono,” or the symmetrical columns of “Nuthatch Song” splayed across two pages. Yet her concern remains how our idioms reflect and shape our world. In “Manganese,” Knox turns her attention to the many places names and phrases with metal or minerals in their construction (“Zinc Bar,” “Palladium Theatre,” “Silicon Valley”); in “Saints Partying” she limns the vestiges the saints left in English: “Santa Ana winds,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and “coquilles St.-Jacques” to name a few.

While these poems share approaches, their larger effect is to sketch the history of civilization that is buried in language. Twenty-first century American English is still paying out its debt to the Norman Invasion of 1066, which injected Anglo-Saxon with Latinates, as well as to all that has come after. The industrial age has given us a “tin ear” while the information age a “cold blob; not blog.” Any language will always be in thrall to its past, which inevitably is its present and future. Hear Trains reminds us to listen to it as it goes by, as we make it go by, “filling people’s mouths, / filling them with binomial nomenclature.”

About the Reviewer

Andrew Seguin is the author of The Room In Which I Work, selected by Calvin Bedient as the winner of Omnidawn’s Open Prize. His other work includes the chapbooks NN and Black Anecdote, as well as a series of cyanotypes inspired by Moby-Dick. A former Fulbright scholar, Andrew lives and works in New York City.