Book Review

The first page of C. Violet Eaton’s debut collection of poetry, Some Habits, offers a model for the book: “I discovered this morning upon waking,” Eaton writes, “that I did get a good drunk or so out of my weekend. a good page too : that’s from the notebook. I work both into the text, slowly, altering for sound or for rhythm, listening through the form & into the space the blood hits.” In endeavoring to make “both” the weekend’s intoxication and the notebook’s page part of his poetry, transforming each “down in the texture,” Eaton suggests that lyricism neither simply recounts experience—how deftly “or so” adds to his report of revelry!—nor luxuriates in the accomplishment of craft; note his expansive ambivalence about the distinction between sound “or” rhythm. Rather, through listening, poetic intelligence tracks gaps that go beyond form. “A closer look reveals this vague incarnadine glamor,” Eaton writes a page later, suggesting that precise examination reveals hardier mysteries.

Close looking, thus, looks obliquely, much as a painter’s sketches can reveal odder angles (is this trembling line a border?) than one sees in a finished landscape; there is a hospitable sense of both landscape and sketch in Eaton’s work. He preserves this sketchiness by integrating lyrical data into types of derangement that feel patiently reflective, looking for the “good page” in a weekend’s drunkenness, not showily unmoored: he notes the “mark of carbon in your last letter,” not the letter’s content; he identifies an ambient chord behind speech (“C#min9”), but prefers the “hum beating” against the chord, “too complex to sort.” Such complexity, of course, offers one variety of enduring clarity. Through the poems’ ruffling and muffling of more typical sense—and this is a poet of exacting sensibility, who gives us “the willow stippled by antlers” and dozens of other richly turned phrases—Eaton digs into remnants, “reams of inscrutable notes,” to attend to traces. “You get it tight enough most anything’ll talk,” he writes, recalling Thomas Traherne’s “Wonder” (“And ev’ry thing that I did see / Did with me talk”).

These are sometimes the overt traces of “somebody who’s absent,” extending from the poems’ recurring address of a “sort of implied spirit called david.” More than chart a limited loss, however, Some Habits follows a mind grown “measureless” when “left alone” with absence; it has thus grown receptive. Eaton’s receptivity isn’t incidental, but invested in “seeing through the rind” toward the “residual volumes” and “wolf intervals” and “else waltzes” that exceed the apparent, helping them “stutter into the audible.” This interest in transformative perception requires diligence and an almost fatalistic willingness to return to David’s initiating absence, much as, in a figure as lovely as those in Virgil’s Georgics, Eaton depicts vines “cut to a foot of the hill” that “give substance to the hill.” This substantiating excision, he suggests, will cause the roots to “grow larger.” I celebrate Eaton’s cultivation of such roots; this isn’t a poet who wishes to scratch the surface but to “scratch into” and “hollow out” his observations.

He’s skeptical, though, of the revelation of mere pattern (“pattern emergence is overrated”), of being a “wallpaper poet.” Because presence that emerges from absence diminishes absence—muting its “reverie trace”—Some Habits prefers the purgatorial interval “between the leaf and branch,” the color of a handkerchief “waltzing away” from its object. In line with the opening page’s drunkenness, discombobulation can aid these states: one page depicts a trippy dog that splits in two when a boy throws a stone at it, while others record rituals (“sometimes I’d starve a little just to write”) that recall both magical thinking and the whimsical squalor of life on a graduate student’s stipend (“lately I’ve been spreading bacon grease and cherry preserves on crackers”). In one passage, Eaton disavows a related kind of graduate-school scholasticism, refreshingly departing from the wan academic articulation of what one is “interested in,” a way of speaking that can amount to aesthetic ass-covering: “‘My work is certainly interested in the collage’ : yes : I’m sure I said this once : I was an educate once : no more : I hiss now like wet turf.”

Through their willful disorientation and abnegation of “selfregard,” through their preference for “palsy courage” and staying “out in the ampersand,” Eaton’s poems “acquire the decency of ordinary experience”—what a touching phrase, around which one could construct a worthwhile ethics of the everyday. The book’s second half focuses on the difficulty of maintaining this decency, which is at once derived from lyrical attention and deviates from it, into the dailyness of corn prices and ordinary coordinates (“view south from CR 41 & Signal Hill Road / Winslow, Arkansas”). The fruits of transformative vision, thus, show their capacious roots. “Occasioned in the pasture : was repeated in the wood,” Eaton writes, and the book begins to emphasize not only the spaces between things but “what works in the space.” That space isn’t abstract but “above the long hallway / just off the kitchen / w/ its magnolia veins taped to the cupboard.”

“Come to now,” one page instructs—an instruction that also has a dateline’s shorthand in it, a summary that brings us to the moment, location: now. Some Habits often orients similarly, through varied argots (“hey. I’m at you. jerk. honky”; “so doth a lityl worde of one syllable”), linguistic disintegration (“the up. the & the between. & the them”), and consistent attention to both the world’s material (“tapped amplifier tobacco, shaky pentagram, lichens”) and one’s experience of it (“we cannot know what is the drug what is the panic”). The result is as affecting as “natural language” that starts to become “part-vellum.” Throughout this absorbing, delectable collection, Eaton continually returns us to a world in which language is as present and palpable as a “floor cluttered with pine needles before someone swept,” in which one might “sear a portrait” like a “gill of rainwater but in the exact same place it fell.” Does every accurate image have a rough spot in it, as in that last phrase’s not necessarily logical “but”? What contrast is it suggesting? Perhaps that one is rightly surprised that such particulars, so movingly seen, haven’t themselves moved from where we find them.

About the Reviewer

Zach Savich’s latest book of poetry is The Orchard Green and Every Color. He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.