Book Review

Thin as it is, Little Arias by Kristen Case is not a light bedside-table book of verse. Case has an encyclopedic mind with dozens of references and allusions at her disposal. Central to the concerns of her poems are multiple philosophers, artists and artistic movements, and of course, other poets and writers. Irony is also key to the vision here. Not the irony of the joke, but those deeper versions born out in philosophical obscurities and language’s own, strange inadequacies. Sung by a single voice, arias are anything but little, but rather songs of complex expression and emotion. The book begins not in song, but in sentences: twelve specific sentences that illustrate the ironies of language itself, and ends with a series of so-called “exercises” that suggests that a full relationship with the physical world must include an embrace of all that exists, as well as all that’s been lost.

While the poems don’t rely on knowledge outside the verse to make them meaningful, any delving into an outside source illuminates the poems. For example, understanding that Cy Twombly’s “Cold Stream” is a painting of a series of white wax looped circles on canvas gives meaning to the words and sounds of Exercise Three: Cy Twombly’s “Cold Stream”:

 of water
of the body
of time

of the hand in its
living un-

what repeats:
edge of eye

One sees the hand strokes, making loops in the sound and rhythm of each short line, which the poet uses to create the sensation of the ever-unraveling nature of existence.

In the opening section, “Twelve Sentences,” Case presents what becomes a central paradox of the collection: presence and absence in the physical world and the limits of language in defining these effectively. She begins with a quotation from Essays from Radical Empiricism by William James who writes, “We live, as it were, at the front edge of an advancing wave crest, and our sense of a determinate direction in falling forward is all we cover of the future of our path.” Case examines this free-fall nature of existence in her own words in the next line: “Instances of unraveling: his syntax, the sunflowers going massively / and intricately to seed, these maples.” Throughout the poems, she suggests that the unraveling of both language and the physical world does not, in the end, lead to loss in the traditional sense. Instead, loss and absence are as much a part of life as any of their opposites.

While clearly at ease with abstractions, Case is at her best when she zooms in the camera lens and in simple language depicts concrete images and experiences that are truly satisfying. For example, in “On Being with Words,” Case describes the physical act of writing. Taking no detail for granted, she describes the feel of the pages between thumb and finger and the minute imagery of the act itself. She writes:

When I turn the page the words have imprinted themselves on my thumb, a series of backward and illegible letters, a writing still somehow recognizable as writing, even as my writing, traversing the friction-ridges of the thumb, image or shadow of interchange between the unfolding that is called myself or my body and the unfolding called a sentence.

Again in “Miscarriage,” Case captures the full sensory experience of floating on her back in a pond watching the wind move the leaves of poplar trees:

First behind me, then to my left,
a movement like a wave,
a sound like the clicking of tiny cameras
or the rapid open-shut of Japanese fans
and a series of flashes like pieces of quartz.

Such vivid descriptions would make her inquiry into the limits of language seem unnecessary except that for all of her efforts to describe and label the physical world, it exists perfectly fine without her or her words. In “Landscape with the Sound of Rushing Water,” she describes the gradual progress of light in the morning that slowly reveals color and image until “[m]y son makes a small sound, not a word.” Light, image, and sound all precede and all exist before and without language. Similarly, in “We May Yet Be Overtaken,” the speaker lists images in the village including, “a brief span of telephone wire, / an unassuming compass of grass and concrete” and concludes that “[a]t this hour, I am nearly nothing, / and these things make no claims.”

In spite of the limits of language, Case is eager to shape a figure or an outline to capture absence and the spaces between things. In “Being with: Marriage, she considers the shared sleep of a couple, but focuses in on “the absolute breach that opens between two sleeping people….” In “Lullaby,” she describes the absence, or spaces of grief:

All the night the bareness of things presses in:
fir tree, floorboard, wound.
These marks
line the edges of absence, make the space
of grief.

Again in “Exercise Six: Losing,” she attempts to make of loss a thing that can be described and identified:

What withdraws
from my knowing,
shape of
a dark interior,
darkly traced. Oh,
small breathing,
small warmth, small
body not my own,
I know
your shadow.
Grief and loss are familiar to each of us, and Case looks to create a space and language for them. In doing so, she encourages us to acknowledge loss as simply another part of “having.”

Each section within the collection tackles a new facet of object and loss, and Case uses different poetic forms in each to express her understanding. She moves fluidly from lyric to prose poems, yet in each, the language is richly textured and opaque. She is conscious of herself as a poet. In sentence two of “Twelve Sentences” she refers to “[p]oems as mechanisms for continual undoing and remaking. / Penelope’s shroud.” She knows her task as a poet is to weave, unweave, and weave again until meaning emerges. She addresses this most specifically in the section, “Fish (for everybody),” in a two-sentence, two-page reflection of playing pirates with her son. In clear, direct prose that is charming, funny and poignant, she suggests that time is “an experience of pure loss, every present moment vanishing irrevocably in the act of coming to be….” Instead of being defeated by such a reality, she goes through life “making a little note for later: swing-set, time, fish, Carole King.” The list of a poet who takes nothing for granted, a poet who urges us to hold dear to all of our experience: that which was, that which is, and that which, someday, will no longer be.

About the Reviewer

Susan Donnelly Cheever is an English teacher and poet. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts.