We measure the distances of stars by the years it takes for their light to reach us. At certain moments, we glimpse a light that died before our world was born, and we take pleasure in that acrid poignancy. Questions about the stars are questions about time; about what has occurred in the irretrievable past, but which only now drifts its mercurial clarity upon our searching eyes. Most of the poems, and all of the finest ones, in Robyn Sarah's new (her seventh) collection take time past and time present as their theme.
Sarah has an uncanny gift for arresting, as though to savour, the instant-either long past and virtually irrecoverable, or the most fleeting quantum of present time. She accomplishes this by means of a suavity of craft which is all the more impressive for being unobtrusive. With its passionate justice to the moment, and to the innumerable fragments of moments that make up memory, Questions about the Stars is one of the most beautiful and moving collections of poems to have appeared in recent years.
To say that this is a collection of poems on time is to make the book sound ponderous. But time in Sarah's poems is measured, not so much by the clock as by the look and touch of things, such as the faint, almost indiscernible passage of a lover's fingertips across the fabric of a woman's underwear:
Curtained, the cold pane, touched with silver fronds.
So quiet is it in the room, that a man's hands,
work-roughened and winter-dry, make a faint
to tell their delicate passage, as they travel
the silken field of her underwear-lightly catching
where threads too tiny for the eye unravel.
This poem, slyly titled "Chamber Music", demonstrates the sensuous discipline of Sarah's craft. The words ring simply; the cadences and stresses alternate upon a trochaic base; the rhymes fall aslant, shifting from the lovely masculine of "fronds/hands" to linked pairs of feminine rhymes in the final four lines at just the moment when the angle of vision shifts to the woman. All the sensuous registers are struck but remain veiled: the light has been muted by curtains and frost; we may not see the threads, but we catch that "faint rasping" of the man's rough fingers against the silk and recognize the anticipatory quiver of pleasure this small crepitation elicits. This is poem as subtle and melodious foreplay.
Another characteristic poem is the deceptively modest "To Ninety":
A city sparrow
on a bare branch
in the fork of a tree
through whose arms
the snow is sifting-
swipes his beak
against wood, this side
and flies away:
could be more common?
Yet I think
for such sights alone
I would live to ninety.
Aside from being sheerly delightful, this poem illustrates Sarah's impeccable sense of timing. The poem could have become yet another anodyne and self-indulgent imitation of William Carlos Williams. By taking the commonplace event of a sparrow alighting on a snowy tree, and recreating it in the plainest language, but with the deftest pauses and line breaks, Sarah has accomplished something unusual. No spin or flourish; the epiphany, "the sight", is what it is, and nothing more. And yet, the poem is, rather cunningly, quite mannered-for there are two pauses, two hovering hesitations, in its swoop and flight. Such seeming effortlessness is perhaps the supreme artifice.
Questions about the Stars is divided into three sections, each of them quite distinctive though bound together by a single theme, and introduced by a liminal prose poem about an "aging poet" identified only as "O". There are several exquisite poems in prose, though most are either in free verse or in such strict forms as the sonnet and villanelle (Sarah is one of the few poets now writing who can bring one off successfully).
The collection is framed or punctuated by lyrics about museums. The museum is central to Sarah's aesthetic. It is antithetical to life and yet we are all, Sarah seems to say, "collectors". But museums are more than inert repositories; they represent order, the arrangement of disparate things, and so are analogous to works of art in general, in which all that we have collected, with their "dusty contours of the unidentified", takes on shape. In the concluding "The World Is Its Own Museum", Sarah brings together this taxonomic impulse with her passionate exactitude for the present moment:
Still I assemble a box of shapes
because my eye, lighting on them,
likes them-as my eye (come fresh
from the dazzle of afternoon
into the gloomy entranceway) lights too
with pleasure upon the hall
table where one has placed
the bowl of what's currently blooming.
Sarah's "museum poems" can appear dry, but they are indispensable, I think, to the more immediately fetching poems. Those exuberant lyrics rest on more hidden and covert foundations than we initially assume and are deepened and strengthened by the more austere reflections on art and perception; similarly, the latter are quickened and warmed by juxtaposition with the more vivid evocations of configured instants.
The most problematic sequence in Questions about the Stars is the "collage" poem which Sarah has confected out of sentences drawn verbatim from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. In a way, we might take this strange assemblage as the closest we can get to answers, or near-answers, to our questions about the stars. The resulting poem, however, has an uncharacteristic deadness of tone that is all the more obtrusive when placed in conjunction with Sarah's signature pieces: it lacks any emotional centre and produces the spooky dissonance of electronic music intruding into a string quartet. There is a plangent flatness about the whole enterprise that must be intentional and yet estranges the reader.
Some of the most poignant poems in this book deal with moments whose roots are achingly long and stretch backwards into a past beyond all touch. "Astronomy" is one piercing example, with its evocation of an evening in an earlier, failed marriage. The husband stargazes; the wife falls asleep alone. The silence of their evening together is palpable:
Her small cough,
far across the room, where she's sunk
deep in the mildewed chair with the sagging springs,
is barely heard.
It's so quiet,
she thinks, you could almost
call it peaceful. She turns a page.
The poem ends with the realization that after the marriage has ended,
will she have questions
about the stars.
Questions about the stars are also, therefore, questions one may ask but which will always remain unanswered and unanswerable. The poems that grapple bravely with such questions-"Astronomy", "A Long View of Where We've Been", and "A Valediction; Unreceivable"-are among the most powerful and assured that Sarah has ever written, and are simply unforgettable.
The poems that succeed triumphantly here are those in which Sarah, true to her multifoliate sense of time, realizes her intentions on several planes simultaneously. The poem that most vividly exemplifies Sarah's magnificent gifts and the power of her art would probably be "On Closing the Apartment of my Grandparents of Blessed Memory":
And then I stood for the last time in that room.
The key was in my hand. I held my ground,
and listened to the quiet that was like a sound,
and saw how the long sun of winter afternoon
fell slantwise on the floorboards, making bloom
the grain in the blond wood. (All that they owned
was once contained here.) At the window moaned
a splinter of wind. I would be going soon.
I would be going soon; but first I stood,
hearing the years turn in that emptied place
whose fullness echoed. Whose familiar smell,
of a tranquil life, lived simply, clung like a mood
or a long-loved melody there. A lingering grace.
Then I locked up, and rang the janitor's bell.
For all its stark simplicity, this is an artful, even a highly rhetorical poem, as befits a sonnet of commemoration. The pious formula, "of blessed memory", that rounds off the title heightens the opening statement, so that "And then I stood for the last time in that room" assumes a gently biblical cadence that re-echoes in the third and fourth lines. This is an ordinary act-closing up the vacated apartment of deceased grandparents- but it has an epic accent. There is great tension condensed within the octet; the speaker is under a duress that rises out of the quietness of the room itself, that illusion of suspended time. There, in the emptiness, "the grain in the blond wood" appears, like the significance of lives that can be glimpsed only in retrospect. At the same moment, with oblique aplomb, Sarah has interwoven a delicate allusion-less than that, the shadow of an echo-to another life whose pattern emerged only afterwards. In one of her most famous lyrics, Emily Dickinson wrote, "There's a certain slant of light/ on winter afternoons"; the "long sun of winter afternoons" that falls "slantwise" responds to that, like a fragile chime struck across the years.
"I would be going soon" ends the octet and the remark is resumed at the opening of the sestet. We grasp the chill force of the repetition: the speaker is about to leave behind not only the apartment of her grandparents and the lives it once contained but, in some future moment, her own life as well. This memento mori is the hinge upon which the whole sonnet gracefully pivots, and is what prevents the final six lines from becoming mawkish. With "a long-loved melody" we teeter on the verge of the maudlin, but the teeter is deliberate, for this least sentimental of poets has in fact set us up. The key was in her hand from the beginning and now she turns it forever in the lock. The matter-of-factness of the last line shocks. That "janitor's bell" rings through the vacant room and casts its harsh astringency back over the whole sonnet. All the brutality of the moment is in that startled trill.
If Robyn Sarah's poems often seem to begin where the words on the page end, they live on with a "lingering grace" in the imagination. Indeed, so assured and musical is the hand that shaped them that these poems tend to memorize themselves, as though they had always formed part of our own experience. They deal in common language with common matters and yet are splendidly uncommon and unmistakably themselves; such poems bring home the truth of Yeats's sobering remark in a late essay that "the common and its fitting language is the research of a lifetime". Questions about the Stars is a fitting celebration both of what our common moments hold and of what a superb and inimitable poet can fashion from them.
Eric Ormsby's most recent book is For a Modest God (Grove Press).