“What is it that brings us together, and keeps us apart? / What is it that holds us in our frame, suspended? What art?” David Koehn asks in his sonnet “The Aquarium at the Potluck.” The question comes on the heels of wry descriptions such as: “In a fire of brain coral, a newt sits, stumped.” Those questions, and that sense of wry self-awareness, are present throughout Twine, Koehn’s first book and the winner of the 2013 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize.
Koehn’s speaker knows the canon well, and frequently makes use of that knowledge. Happily, it’s never a way of showboating. Rather, the interaction between experience and tradition is deeply felt by the speaker, and the allusiveness allows us access to his depth of feeling. Take a poem like “The Marking”:
The scuppernong arbor is fog-thick with fleas.
One bit his wrist, the almost-visible sheath swelled.
His walk took almost long enough to remove
The twinge. Dark towns appeared on the horizon;
The evening hatched struck couplings
Of lights. The sweet of silage occluded the sulfur.
Though the title alludes to the opening line of Donne’s “The Flea,” Koehn’s poem at first has no clear relation to Donne. Instead, we get one of Koehn’s characteristic talents: rich description coupled with a muscular music. Beautiful as this music may be, though, music alone is not enough. Fortunately, Koehn’s music is in service to the creation of a very human world. The poem continues:
Raw-edged, throbbing ripe as the berries, in the window
He saw his wife wipe her lips. Just less than angry
He asked, “What’s this? Whose glasses?”
She said, “Everyone blames me, don’t blame me.”
We begin to sense the stakes. The speaker is upset by the suspected infidelity yet poignantly resigned to it, stopping just short of anger. His wife, for her part, is caught within a pain of her own, one of blame and isolation. As she “swashes his girdered nerves,” the two collide but do not connect from within their separate sufferings. It is at this moment that the poem reveals its connection to Donne’s flea:
Smell of wisteria, a blanket over the birdless silence,
Reminds us of what lie was almost uncovered,
Of the benefits of silage. Of what sex could never do,
but the flea could, and again has not done.
Donne’s wry seduction poem asserts that since the speaker’s blood and his beloved’s blood have already mixed inside the flea, they might as well go ahead and hook up. Koehn’s speaker acknowledges that the argument is comic (as evidence, see the mild pun on done/Donne). Nonetheless, he takes part of it seriously: Donne’s flea had the ability, in its way, to bring the beloved and the speaker into some kind of communion, a blending that “sex could never do.” In the end, though, the flea is insufficient: it could allow some connection, but did not do so for Donne and will not do enough for Koehn. Koehn’s speaker’s knowledge allows him to contextualize his ache, but offers no relief. If anything, the hurt is worse: he is acutely aware not only of his isolation, but of the ongoing history of isolation.
Koehn has an admirable ability to speak in many different modes. Take a poem like “Swimming Laps at High Altitude.” The poem opens with a smartly funny take on the pathetic fallacy: “As the chin, the shoulder, turn for air, the lungs / Pull for sky. Sky doesn’t respond.” By the end, the speaker becomes acutely—even paralyzingly—aware of the aesthetic problems of transmuting experience into art:
…I am surprised I can hear
The radio, long after I have actually
Heard the radio. The Red Hot Dateline’s 1-
800 Numbers secret code, HOT DATE.
Maybe the vulgar have it right, I know I can
Screw anything up. Complicate any simple matter.
Maybe it is just an accumulated stack
Of smut. Oh to be those dithyrambic organs!
But no, I am but the flag of an idea waving,
Riffling with direction. Incomplete scorecard,
Mixed metaphor, distant swimmer signaling,
This is where it is, aim here. I am here.
The poem’s use of darkly self-deprecating humor turns the mixed metaphors from a problem to a benefit: we empathize with the speaker for his very inability to articulate himself. At the same time, the speaker’s use of what Tony Hoagland has called “surrogate tone”—the use of an outdated poetic register in a way that “ironize[s] but [does] not discredit” the impulse behind it—allows this poem to remain grounded in a sense of real human feeling. The speaker shouts his desire to “be those dithyrambic organs!” in an exclamatory mode and elevated register that ironically echoes the Romantics. All the same, there’s something to the feeling: as the final stanza makes clear, the speaker does feel lost and adrift, and things really might be easier if he were merely one of those organs.
In poems like “Swimming Laps…,” the elevated register is effectively used for a humorously poignant purpose. At other times, in more straightforwardly earnest poems, Koehn’s fondness for lofty diction can give the sense that his poems are trying too hard to be Poetic (with a capital P). See, for instance, the opening of “Drift”: “A swarm of blue dragonflies / Bend river over the hemimetabolous iridescence / Of their eyes.”
The occasional misstep into capital-P Poetry, however, is a minor grievance. On the whole, Twine is an excellent book. Impressive in their range and arresting in their musicality, the poems are consistently successful. Moreover, the book is carefully structured to frame each section within a different ars poetica, allowing the poems to also provide shifting interpretations of the act of poetry itself. Skillful and intelligent, grounded deeply in experience, Twine is a book that rewards each re-reading.
About the Reviewer
J.G. McClure is an M.F.A. candidate at the University of California Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), and his reviews appear in Cleaver. He is at work on his first book.