Book Review

Ethel Rackin’s The Forever Notes consists of three sections, “Notes,” “Pictures,” and “Songs,” all of which focus, stylistically and/or thematically, on the notion of activity within containment. The nineteen poems in “Notes” primarily address active containment stylistically, specifically utilizing un-capitalized titles, brevity, and repetition to striking effect. “You lie in a told tree sure,” whose title echoes Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado”—“Susie Asado which is a told tray sure”—is an example:

And the books of elders beside it
You lie in a told tree sure
And the books of elders beside it
The books of elders in the told tree
And the books of elders beside it
You lie in a told tree sure
And the books of elders beside it

The poem enacts containment stylistically through its bookended nature; if you read the title as the first line—as I do, because of the lack of capitalization—the poem’s first two and last two lines are identical. It enacts activity through the near-repetition of “You lie in a told tree sure” and “And the books of elders beside it.” My surprise at the activity within those near-repetitions enhances the direct pleasure of my apprehending them. The overall stylistic effect of “You lie in a told tree sure” is of bees in a hive—the similarity of the lines contributes heavily—with Rackin’s conflation of the title and first line raising the possibility of escape.

In relation to style, the fourteen poems in “Pictures” are longer, more enjambed, less repetitive, and generally prosier. Thematically they often address specifically identifiable real-world topics. “Movie Poems,” for one example, is composed of sections named after the films Talk to Her, Far From Heaven, and Lost in Translation, and each section is a sort-of summary of the relevant film’s actors, characters, and plots. “Pictures” is generally more literal than “Notes,” expository where “Notes” is performative, and its approach to active containment reflects that. While “Notes”’s “You lie in a told tree sure” enacts active containment, “Pictures”’s first poem, “Amanda,” discusses it, concluding: “… I realize I have to move things around / even though I’m in the enclosed city.”

Like “Pictures,” many of “Songs”’s seventeen poems thematically address the notion of activity within containment. But while the speaker of “Amanda” accepts that she is “in the enclosed city,” many of the speakers in “Songs” raise the possibility of escape. In the poem “Song,” for instance, Rackin writes of “the need to sing to be,” and “What Befalls You” begins:

I could no longer stand the trees
when a stand of them began to blossom.
That summer was one of the best.
We were ourselves, miraculously.

In “the need to sing to be” and “We were ourselves, miraculously,” Rackin counterintuitively figures escape as its opposite: “be[ing],” “ourselves.” But escape ends:

All of a sudden fall fell, as fall always does.
Rolls of film went missing, and with them
something less detectable.
Say it was a severe season with the children rushing in
in great strokes of clarity, then years of canceling fog.

“Songs” follows “Pictures” in its thematic focus on activity within containment, but is stylistically distinguished from The Forever Notes’s first two sections by the presence of odes like “Ode to the Elgin Marbles,” which invokes John Keats’s “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” Keats’s poem is a wistful lament over the inevitable physicality of the passage of time—the “Wasting of old time” reduces the Marbles to a “shadow of a magnitude,” which “Bring[s] round the heart an undescribable feud / … a most dizzy pain.” But for Rankin the Marbles inspire anticipation rather than reflection, and are growing rather than “Wasting.” Activity is in the future, rather than the past:

When will I be ready to see those great sepulchers?
When will I be ready to see them?
Is there a type of preparedness
I can expect to be transferred?
All the while the marbles are growing
older. They are growing and being seen.
When will I be released into their sight?

The ode-ist’s stance is necessarily one of activity within containment, activity from afar, and Rackin inhabits it to great effect. As individual poems and as a volume, The Forever Notes’s various stylistic and thematic treatments of activity within containment are weirdly moving. Their power lies in their simultaneous enactment and celebration of the principle of activity, whether contained or momentarily escaped.

About the Reviewer

Greg Weiss teaches writing at New York University, and his first book of poems, Interstate, will be out in November 2014 from WordTech Communications.