In her sixth book, Wave House, Elizabeth Arnold’s unpredictable poems mimic the incalculable movements of a world in flux due to social inequity, political instability, and climate uncertainty. Far-flung regions of the world take center stage, and Florida is a place that the speaker never wishes to return. Time is merely a suggestion, and the fluidity of Arnold’s poems suggest that it, like other human-made concepts, was created merely to be taken apart and restructured again. Throughout the collection, structure is, surprisingly, necessary for the speaker’s careful dismantling of self, place, and glaring socio-economic and political barriers.
“I Almost Died” is a brief, fluid poem. Its lines, consisting of only one to six words each, flow and shape an eloquent river. The poem’s structure contributes heavily to this element. Enjambment is essential:
I like where I am now
in the mountains
but I know I’ll go.
One phrase carefully drifts into another, and the internal spacing creates necessary, contemplative moments which allow readers to decide when they move to the next line. The unpredictable structure also creates suspense, which reinforces the concept of near-death initially introduced in the title.
Mirroring the spontaneity of “I Almost Died” is “Elegy.” Rooted in paleontological history, it draws on the scientific knowledge of the Chicxulub asteroid, the plummeting object that left an approximately ninety-three-mile-wide and twelve-mile-deep crater off Mexico’s coast. The poem offers a few poetic snippets for thought about extinction and what the fossil record might teach humanity about its own possible demise. Again, form supports the poem’s content, and much like the dramatic, nearly unfathomable tectonic shifts which placed the continents where they are today, the lines split into jagged, philosophical offerings. The speaker’s reflections about the processes which form fossils act as an internal turning point:
Somehow I feel
the fine silt give before it hardens, becomes
the even deposit grave of fish,
their dying alive in the rock,
the very instant of their pain preserved,
The sense of fracturing and destruction forms as the lines break away from one another. The suspension of single lines like “their dying alive in the rock” in between couplets places emphasis on such lines and overwhelms readers with a sense of futility and mortality.
The sense of futility trickles into poems like “With Nowhere to Call Home.” Surprisingly, despite its themes of displacement and uncertainty, it is one of the most structurally concrete poems in Arnold’s collection. A slim poem of only five lines, “With Nowhere to Call Home” is both direct and mystical. Each line acts as a stepping stone on which readers tread gently:
each new place
I find myself in
once I’ve gotten used to it
deepens my sorrow.
Readers step and step until they reach the final line: “I always pull myself away a stranger.” At this line, minimalism creates a metaphysical tone, one which echoes the works of Greek poet George Sarantaris.
These minimalist, metaphysical elements also culminate in the three-line powerhouse “Fragment:”
Last night the stars were so bright,
Venus magnified, wide as a moon.
A plane’s light blinked as it crept across.
In the fashion of Williams Carlos Williams, imagery is essential. However, spacing is as well. The visual expression is imperative, since the star’s brightness and Venus’s magnification are, essentially, intangible. The plane’s creeping action is a personification all its own, and, as the poem’s concluding line, establishes a lingering, a longing which matches the ever-present feeling of displacement throughout the collection.
With its mythological references, “Odysseus Was Almost Home” is a magical poem in which the speaker’s displacement and longing fully solidify. Again, the poem’s brevity and compact structure reinforce these emotional concepts. The line breaks and spacing emphasize phrases like “I have to stop” and create the sense of an internal struggle. As the thought continues, the speaker’s reliance on em-dashes—“telling them—my family—”— reinforces that struggle and creates an echo effect. It is the poem’s final line— “I’m always far from home no matter where I am”—that emotionally punches the reader’s metaphorical guts. The line is also an eerie parallel to the line “I always pull myself away a stranger” in “With Nowhere to Call Home.” This parallel creates a cycle of emotional, even intellectual, torment.
Wave House lives up to its titles. Its poems are emotional, intellectual, and experiential waves which crash into, gently bump, and even knock over readers as they traverse the collection and navigate the verses’ ebbs, flows, breakers, and ripples.
About the Reviewer
Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Atlanta Review, the Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and the Southern Review of Books.