by Andrew Steinmetz
Then Again: Something of a Life
by Iain Higgins
Post Your Opinion
|Wandering in the Clearcut
by Adam Beardsworth
In his poem "Literary Terms", Andrew Steinmetz concludes with a poignant witticism: "More than anything, including a regular naptime/ and sex, every writer wants, a close reading." The brusque delivery and emotional austerity of Hurt Thyself, Steinmetz's second book of poetry, make it a collection that both demands, and deserves, at least as much. Moving effortlessly between the ordinary and the aesthetic, Steinmetz's poems betray a terse but compassionate eye for the uncanny. Organized into three sections, the collection moves from intimate portraits of marriage, to observations about literature and art, to intricate explorations of a family's immigrant history. Steinmetz keeps the tone of an attached, though skeptical, observer throughout, a quality that protects the poems against sentimentality in spite of their emotional content.
It is in the first section that Steinmetz best accomplishes this balance between intimacy and astute observation. Composed of fourteen poems focused on the beauty, pleasure, sorrow, and levity of married life, the poems at times incite admiration, even envy, for the strength of the couple's love. The sequence begins with the pain of the collection's title poem:
. . . Some day
you may forgive me, and we may
touch each other, again, exactly,
where it hurts.
The poem's description of pain is revealing. It implies that the worst suffering stems from the self-inflicted pain of hurting a loved one. The rest of the sequence works its way outwards from the initial wound. It subtly reveals why the unnamed hurt of the opening poem is so deep by repeatedly naming the intimate, often startling beauty at the relationship's core. In "Lunch Date", for example, Steinmetz elevates casual liaison to romantic ritual:
You come home for lunch
and we go upstairs to the bedroom
or after, usually straightaway.
We stand on the rug, feet apart
Your arms drain out of the sleeves,
lithe as the last ones to know.
Already I am in my socks, beside myself.
Here we pause, packed solid
for breathing. Then like statues
brought together for love,
off our pedestals
in the resplendent daylight of the second floor.
What can you want from me, everything
is yours. Granted permission,
I twist the ring, a gold band,
same as mine, sliding it
off without prying¨then my turn.
Now we are identical,
the blood from fingers.
We hold each other
and smile, reaching around
back for bunches of anything.
In lines that seem at once taut and relaxed, Steinmetz describes a domestic love that finds an organic, almost ceremonial beauty residing in the same territory that, for many couples, is occupied by routine and complacency. The ability to continuously rediscover a powerful, unsentimental love localised in the patterns of domestic behaviour is what is most striking about this opening sequence. "What can you want from me, everything/ is yours" Steinmetz asks in the above poem; however, in each other the lovers seem always capable of reaching increasingly vertiginous heights while, "squeezing/ the blood from fingers" and "reaching around/ back for bunches of anything." As the sequence progresses, Steinmetz moves effortlessly from poem to poem as he continues to describe the small rituals of married life. Acknowledging in "An Honest Couple" that "Neither of us wants to nurse / a broken heart, neither of us cherishes this part" Steinmetz seems to insist that taking such small rituals seriously is necessary for maintaining a powerful love, though he still admits the difficulty of sustaining such effort, as in "Models of Society":
We still do it: try on our new clothes
for each other, though I wonder
how we'll afford to continue
doing this fairly, when the years
start mounting up, and now
and again, just occasionally
I question what in point of fact
we model and, ultimately, for whom
The rest of the poems in Hurt Thyself maintain Steinmetz's tendency to revel in antagonisms. Taking as his primary focus the disparity between ordinary life and aesthetics, Steinmetz's second section broaches the subject with a sardonic honesty often missing from other poems that chart similar territory. For example, in "Confessions of a Borrower", Steinmetz's speaker admits to always leaving the "Montreal / Municipal / Library" with "a good four or five / tomes" that inevitably spend the next several months at home on "the bench in the hall" where he'll "let them gather / some real life experiences." We see a similar mix of philosophical insight and human observation in the collection's final section. Here Steinmetz devotes his energy to recollections of his Swedish immigrant grandparents. In poems such as "Solitaire", he uses the details of their personal histories as metonyms for the transition from the old world to the new. Pairing the traditional love between his grandparents with the intimate details of marriage portrayed in the first section of the collection, Steinmetz seems to advocate the strength of personal relationships as a transcendent value:
during the period when the house
was theirs, they slept in separate beds,
but in the same room like siblings
who remained close to the end.
It is this ability to locate and elevate the importance of such values in scenes of everyday life that make Hurt Thyself a successful and enjoyable collection.
In contrast to the poignant readability of Steinmetz's poems, those found in Iain Higgins's first collection Then Again: Something of a Life are less immediately accessible. From the verbose opacity of opener "Propositions and Postholes" Higgins makes it clear that the reward in his collection will require some work. Demonstrating a linguistic dexterity that at times resembles the early work of fellow former Cambridge resident Robert Lowell (Higgins, as noted on the back cover, received a PhD in English from Harvard), the poem's dense associative style prefaces the "propositions and postholes" that comprise the volume's transitory movement through personal and cultural history. Though the alliterative word play ("that the lustrous rustle of leaves is lust lutestung") can be burdensome, the manner in which such lines reveal images in ephemeral breaches before retreating beneath the surface of their verbal fluidity seems central to Higgins's exploration of the limits between imagination, history, and reality. Nodding towards John Ashbery, a poet of similar concerns, in "Self-Portrait in a Display Window", Higgins, like "crows drifting back / to rookeries in the suburbs," drifts from subject to subject, exposing empirical fault lines in a world determined by objectivity:
The fault's his own, he knows, crudely sutured
by tax-deductibles, spare change, the reading of novels,
AI communiquTs, spare change, the reading of
Warning, says a text on the passenger side, objects
in this mirror are larger than they seem. A look
back confirms the truth¨how easy the engineers
have made this object-world, whether or not,
and can you blame them?
Though throughout the first section Higgins displays a tendency towards a punny wordplay ("I'll make a meal of 'em, dining out / on the paperbacked spoils, mixing with such metaphors"; "The odds against you were so long whoa / you were almost inconceivable"; "your number came up / in the long-drawn blue dawn of this cosmic crapshoot"), he reveals an endearing reluctance to privilege heightened diction above the language of the everyday. In so doing, Higgins calls into question preconceived notions of "proper" poetic diction. Displaying an admirable ability to allow the easy witticism to coexist harmoniously with the reverential, Higgins's methods reveal a poetic consciousness both mired, and even inspired, by the mundane. As he says in "The Dead Await Your Reply": "You take the high road; I'll just wander in the clearcut."
Higgins's ability to disrupt his poems with the intrusion of allusive voices and images is compelling for the glimpse it offers us of a poetic mind struggling to impose order on a disordered, fluid consciousness. While seeming to fall within a Stevens-Ashbery tradition, Higgins carves out unique territory while continuing to explore the relationship between poetry and mind in the title section "Then Again: Something of a Life." This long sequence of opaque lyrics is interspersed (and purposefully interrupted) by forthright prosaic recollections of childhood events. The lyrics are composed in short stanzaic patterns. Resembling the Persian ghazal, the short stanzas often bear very little tangible connection to each other; rather, they are connected by the nuances of memory, as in "61/62":
Not a fin-tailed two-tone caddie, but a grey Morris Minor, the car was just big enough to hold the four of them as they set off for Mexico, his father transferred.
ÝCuidado n_no! the grown-ups would shout for the next two years.
Gaelic, Spanish, Glaswegian slang, amongst other tongues while his was taking shapes.
As in the poems of the first section, Higgins refrains from imposing a specific order on the influx of memories. The resulting effect is a series of poems that imitate the fogginess of recollection. The prose-poems that are interspersed with the lyrics work to do just the opposite. Recalling Robert Lowell once again ("91 Revere Street" in particular), these autobiographic memoirs remind us that "One name for this self-detaching, self-doubling is story-telling, & you can probably think of others." This "self-detached self-doubling" is meant to suggest the distance between history, memory, and recollection, a strategy that, though at times demanding, is rewarding for its level of poetic rigor and insight and admirable for its accomplished stylistic complexity. ˛
Adam Beardsworth is a SSHRC doctoral fellow in Memorial University's English Department.