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Bending Over the Page

I’ve learned much from looking at visual art with my brother, John. I should do it more often. He approaches a painting in stages, often bending close in search of clues to technique invisible to me. His eye is keener than mine and his visual vocabulary vaster by far. I got to thinking about his interest in how the finished work does what it does while reading two volumes of poetry published this year: Martha Serpas’s Double Effect (Louisiana State University Press) and Claude Wilkinson’s World Without End (Slant). Both are fine collections from gifted poets, replete with poems that reward the reader who bends over them for a closer look.

Those already familiar with Martha Serpas’s work (would there were many more) know what to expect from her new volume: fresh, direct language; resonant musical lines; reverent attentiveness to the fragile beauty of human bodies and imperiled landscapes; the marks of a keen intellect shaped in equal measure by learning and loss. Richard Howard once wrote that Serpas made him think of “George Eliot, if she had written poems as compassionate as her fiction.” To be sure, Serpas renders the textures of life in Cajun country as incisively as Eliot did the nineteenth century English Midlands. Yet a note to “In Praise of the Unremembered,” one of Serpas’s new poems, suggests another apt comparison: Jane Kenyon. In that poem, Serpas uses spare words and images that feel at once highly personal and readily accessible to limn the contours of amnesia:

            Not forgot, as if the mind had left a book
            on the table, closed the front door
            and walked downstairs to the car.

            Not the talismans I still hold – a digital watch,
            the stipes of a broken cross
            dangling from my rearview mirror,
            a blues harp’s clear C, her flushed chest…

Then, after continuing in that vein for several more lines, she makes a gentle turn to her putative subject, writing:

            But what is unremembered,
            I can’t tell you a thing about,
            I have no beliefs, thank God,
            just a weird kind of faith, like my dog
            standing at the front door, ear cocked
                        toward nothing.
            He feels me while I am
            blocks away. I love the unremembered
            like that. It’s my whole life, which I cannot plot.

Thus we live our lives forward, trusting without knowing who or what approaches or when it will arrive. Here, as so often in her poetry, Serpas combines a dark clarity and acute awareness of impermanence with a gentle, self-deprecating humor. She, like Kenyon, sustains a willing receptivity in a world of unknowing, finding ways to live lovingly in a dearth of certainties.

In “Compassion Requires I Imagine I’m Something Else,” Serpas begins:

            The imagination stripped is beauty,
                                    beauty of dazzling gratitude:
                        back to the undiscovered in us
           what we thought, but could not see, from where we stopped.

Here, as in “In Praise of the Unremembered,” she approaches her subject apophatically, clearing her mind of illusory solutions to insoluble mysteries. The second stanza, in contrast, embeds scientific specificity within delicate, well-wrought metaphors:

            What is beautiful in me is so small
            as if a barb of driftwood, carbon
                        and oxygen knitted by earth and air,
            kneaded by the sea, then brought
                                    back to the air by fire settled
                        in my chest.

The payoff comes in the third and final stanza, as that fire within issues in speech:

            The whirl rises out of what is so small,
            so small it begins as a particle
                        of hardwood and ends
                                    as a flickering blue and yellow voice.

The conclusion hints at one way to understand what’s at work in Serpas’s poetry. She has learned to wait patiently on the whirlwind within, confident that from it a voice will speak words worthy to be written and shared. We, her readers, are the fortunate recipients of that bounty.

Claude Wilkinson, critic, essayist, painter and poet, brings a rather different sensibility to his verse: congenial, informal, almost conversational, but equally rich in substance and insight. Wilkinson, like Serpas, carefully attends to things of this world in search of hidden meaning, clues to spiritual realities. As one would expect of an accomplished painter, Wilkinson brings a keen eye for visual detail and composition to his poetry, asking the reader to look not only at the object of his interest, but into and through it.

In “Destroying Angel,” for example, he notes the seductive powers of belladonna (commonly known as deadly nightshade though the scientific name means “beautiful lady”) and the poisons hidden “in the purple / of her innocent-looking cup,” before considering the toxic mushroom (Amanita ocreata, known as the destroying or death angel) from which the poem takes its title:

But this amanita
nourished by death, named
in Old Testament fashion,
sounds wrathful from the start,
looks the part too,
though svelte under
that bitter umbrella,
and as bright
as those once were
who first fell
from heaven.

Wilkinson takes us somewhere we didn’t expect at the poem’s start, though there were clues enough along the way. A good poem, like a good joke, demands an ending at once fitting and surprising. A fine poem doesn’t stop there. It invites readers to linger, wondering at the strange place the words have taken them. Here, with vivid images to draw upon, we’re left to puzzle out how the names we apply to things reveal or obscure fraught realities within.

Another deceptively profound poem is titled “Thusness,” suggesting the medieval scholastic distinction between quidditas (the essence or “whatness” of a thing) and haecceitas (its particularities or “thisness”). The poem’s speaker spies a “verily minuscule” spider spinning its web in the kitchen as morning light slants through the window. The spider:

creeps the windowsill
across each stroke
of brightness then shade
then brightness then shade,
as if on a great commission
from, dare I say, its soul.

The last two lines of that stanza lift us out of the realm of PBS nature shows and into the world of theology and metaphysics. The next stanza draws us further in, wrapping a question worthy of a scholastic disputation in an offhand question:

With nothing more
or less to think of
for the moment,
I wonder if it loves,
or even has to love God.

Which leads to yet another question:

And if so, is this homage
only due when somewhere
a glassy beetle
or nectar-fat candlefly
hangs in its faithful web?

Wilkinson, in directing the reader’s eye to a spider in a kitchen window, asks how conditional, how transactional is the love he or we claim to hold for God. This is William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” in action, seeing “the World in a Grain of Sand… And Eternity in an Hour.”

There’s much more in both collections to reward any reader. Calling too much attention to craft feeds into the common misapprehension that reading poetry requires special knowledge, some key to decipher the code. These poems are written in plain, accessible language and enjoyable to read. For those, however, who want to bend over them, to look more closely and see, as it were, the brushstrokes on the canvas, they’re a great place to start.


Brian Volck is a pediatrician and writer living in Baltimore. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His website is